Highlights, Caveats, and Advice for Candidates: A Debate Coach’s Look at Helena’s US House Candidate Forum

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My most important takeaway from the US House Candidate Forum last night in Helena was a good one: the Democrats have attracted a strong field of candidates who can give Greg Gianforte a real challenge in his bid for re-election. For the most part, I was quite impressed with the depth of knowledge and experience on display Thursday night and look forward to supporting whichever candidate becomes the Democratic nominee.

I watched the forum as a former speech and debate coach rather than as a supporter of any of the candidates. Here’s my (certainly far too long) take:

Who Won?

I didn’t come into the evening with many preconceived ideas about any of the candidates. Going in without any real inclination towards or bias against any of the candidates, my take is that Grant Kier stood out as the most effective communicator and most passionate defender of Democratic principles. Other than a shaky first answer on the question of government regulation, I felt he gave the strongest answer on each of the following four questions: Health Care, LBGTQ issues, Inequality in Indian Country, and Women’s Health/Workplace Protections.

This is far from an endorsement at this point, but I was terribly impressed with Kier’s ability to connect personal anecdotes to his evident knowledge of policy. He’d certainly be a formidable opponent for Mr. Gianforte in the fall.

I was impressed in different ways by all the candidates, but Kier stood out tonight as the kind of candidate who will impress voters with his sincerity and expertise. When he wrapped up his remarks by noting that “we need leaders who are more interested in what the world will look like for their nine-year-old daughter than in what will win in the next election cycle,” I believed he’s the kind of candidate who will do just that.

It was an impressive performance.

Highlights of the Evening

  • On a question about protecting the rights of the LGBTQ community in the face of Trump-led hostility to the community, I was incredibly impressed with Kier’s answer. He sincerely acknowledged his privilege and argued that it meant he had an obligation to work “to protect all human beings.” Using even stronger rhetoric, he argued that it is the “responsibility of government” to ensure that everyone feels safe in their body and safe to love whomever they want. We’re not far removed from when Democrats still hedged a bit in their support for the LGBTQ community to improve their electoral odds in Montana, and it’s encouraging to see candidates unambiguously voice their support for the LGBTQ community. For me, it was the best single moment in the night.
  • I loved the discussion on heath care, which ranged from John Heenan’s support for Medicare for All to Kathleen Williams’s focus on CHIP to Kier’s discussion about the need to protect critical access care in rural areas and ensure transparency in pricing. Though they expressed differences of opinion, all the candidates showed a depth and sophistication of knowledge on healthcare that will be critical running against Mr. Gianforte.
  • I was thrilled that public lands were only mentioned a few times in the debate. I know that it’s been a winning issue for Montana Democrats and will continue to be one in the future, but I’ve heard enough about it as a defining issue for now. It was a nice break.
  • I was encouraged by the record of achievement each of the candidates will be able to stand on in a race against Gianforte. Moss and Williams have been successful in business, the non-profit world, and the Legislature; Heenan and Pettinato have worked for ordinary people in the legal system; Kier has done important protecting access and preserving habitat. That will matter against Gianforte and his description of his success in the business world.

Caveats

  • Nothing in this comment is meant to be critical of any of the candidates, male or female, tonight, but one nagging thought as I left the debate was that there sure seems to be a higher threshold for legitimacy for women running for office. Williams and Moss rightfully fell back on their experience in the Legislature often during the forum, but it’s astonishing how much time incredibly qualified women need to spend establishing their bona fides when they run for office. While all the candidates have strength, Moss and Williams are undoubtedly the most directly qualified for the job of representing Montanans in a legislative body and I hope Democratic voters will respect that experience.
  • On the question of women’s issues, I was disappointed that the candidates didn’t speak with the same candor they did on LGBTQ issues. While all the candidates spoke about protecting women’s health in general terms and most defended funding for Planned Parenthood, all shied away from directly stating that they were 100% committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose or abortion rights. I suspect it’s an oversight that won’t be repeated and don’t doubt the pro-choice credentials of the candidates, but Democrats should not shy away from direct, unambiguous language on this critical issue.
  • The forum was on a cold, snowy, night and the size of the crowd was very impressive (leading to some people unable to squeeze into the conference room), but the age of the attendees demonstrates the simple truth that Democrats need to get young voters more excited if they want to win elections in Montana. Outside of the staffers working the room, I’d guess the average age of the crowd was in the neighborhood of 55, and as important as those voters are, we’ll need to get young people fired up and active if we want to dump Gianforte and keep Senator Tester in office.

Advice

A few notes of advice for the candidates going forward:

  • Jared Pettinato probably won’t listen to this suggestion, but the language at the centerpiece of his campaign just didn’t seem to land with the audience. His refrain that he’s running on “wind and trees” was most effective when he defended wind energy, but I’m not sure I understand still how Montana can make money from “management money that grows on trees to decrease extreme wildfires in western Montana.” The central messaging needs some refinement.
  • John Heenan was at his best when he was on the attack, going after Greg Gianforte’s “stupid assault on Planned Parenthood” and forcefully calling for health care for all Americans. At times, though, his energy seemed to fade a bit during other moments of the debate. He was most effective in those discussions of economic issues, but could really make them stronger by connecting to real people, not just making somewhat vague references to cases he’s tried and people he’s represented.
  • Grant Kier did stumble a bit out of the gate when asked about the Trump administration’s effort to roll back regulations. He jumped into the weeds about a very specific change to regulations on a solvent used by painters before establishing his broad philosophy. In almost any debate format, the first 20 and last 20 seconds of an answer are the most important, because the audience is going to be listening the mostly closely then. It’s always best to start with a clear definition of values or interesting anecdote to establish a connection to the audience. Then you can talk about paint solvent.
  • Kathleen Williams rightly focused on her experience working in what she called our “inexperienced” and “hyper-partisan Legislature, but I’d love to see her use those experiences to more directly discuss what she would do in the future if elected. It would be an easy pivot to turn descriptions of those fights in Helena to plans for real change in Washington and transform too-specific descriptions of past votes at the Legislature into rousing calls to action for the state and nation.
  • Lynda Moss came across as incredibly warm and personally committed to the causes of equity and inclusion. Her focus on her previous experience would be stronger if she focused on legislative achievements, as I think some of her discussion about non-profit work was lost on the audience. Her speeches would be more powerful if they connected more clearly to her passion for social justice and improving our communities rather than very specific details the format didn’t allow her the time to explain adequately.

We’ve got some candidates here, people. Get out, listen to them, and start working for the person you think will give us the best chance to defeat Greg Gianforte. And then, even if your preferred candidate doesn’t win, get out and work for the nominee.

We’re taking this seat back.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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