Based on the 178 people watching the Facebook feed, there wasn’t much passion for the first (and only?) debate between the Republican candidates for governor in Billings this evening, but I watched it so you didn’t have to. On the bright side, there were references to bounty hunters and body slams, so it wasn’t without some joy.
Here are my key takeaways:
- My favorite moment in the debate happened when Gianforte started boasting about the incredible expansion of high-tech jobs in Montana, perhaps not realizing that all of that growth he’s touting happened under the watch of Democratic governors. I don’t know that a Cooney ad for governor could have more effectively made the case that Montana high-tech is thriving under Governor Bullock and Lt. Governor Cooney’s watch than did Gianforte this evening.
- All of these Republican candidates are 100% committed to undermining reproductive health for women. Asked what bills vetoed by Governor Bullock they would sign, all three immediately chose bills restricting abortion access rights. Women of Montana, take note: the three Republican candidates for governor don’t believe in regulating businesses, but they are committed to regulating your uterus.
- Maybe Gianforte’s court-mandated anger management course did the trick. While Fox tried to take shots at Gianforte for being from out-of-state and dishonest about his plans when he ran Congress, and Olszewski opened the debate with a dig about Gianforte’s penchant for body-slamming, the Congressman managed to take questions for a whole ninety minutes without punching anyone.
- Speaking of Olszewski, the guy is probably going to pull 15% of the vote in the primary because he is absolutely the voice of the Theresa Manzella wing of the Republican Party. In the course of the evening, he twice said that he would solve the problem of crime in Montana by putting out bounties on criminals, once said that he would use the National Guard to “lay siege” to criminal operations, and once said that he would somehow force other states to pay a tax on Montana coal they don’t want.
- Another highlight came when Olszewski admitted that he performed two knee replacement surgeries for someone who was fraudulently paying for it with Medicaid while owning a home, two cars, and a boat—and didn’t report her to the authorities.
- I was glad to hear Gianforte and Fox both talk about criminal justice reform, with Gianforte going so far as to call for the release of some prisoners on parole and expanded drug treatment courts. Perhaps it is finally time for all Americans—left, right, and center—to realize that our failed War on Drugs is destroying communities and lives with nothing to show for it.
- Gianforte’s economic plan for Montana is entirely nonsensical. In an answer to one question, he claimed he would simultaneously freeze government spending, create a budget surplus, use that surplus to cut taxes, and massively increase spending for teachers.
- Perhaps Gianforte has adopted this magical thinking about budgets from his idol, President Trump. I actually don’t know that I have ever felt more embarrassed for another person than I felt for Gianforte when he tried to work in his love and deep personal connection to President Trump into every answer he gave. You all might not know this, but President Trump once gave him a Diet Coke—and that’s a reason he should be governor. The only thing sadder than watching Gianforte try to win President Trump’s love is watching Eric Trump try to do it.
- Watching Tim Fox in the debate was like watching the worst pitch for a science fiction series imaginable: what would happen if a Republican from 1996 found himself in a race for governor in 2020? His desperate efforts to prove his conservative bona fides only underscored that he’s just too moderate to have any chance in this field.
- When Gianforte debates in the general election, Democrats should push to have a forceful moderator. He simply doesn’t answer most of the questions that are asked and pivots back to the same stories of doubtful provenance and three talking points about the business he “and Susan” started every time. Democrats should demand a moderator who can interrupt to force an answer or a debate format that gives them the chance to rebut his statements. He has gotten better at this, and we need to be prepared for that.