BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock sought to keep the focus on health care and the pandemic in the race for a Montana U.S. Senate seat, while Republican incumbent Steve Daines put the spotlight on the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy during a heated Monday night debate.
With mail ballots going out to voters next week, the two candidates are vying for a seat considered pivotal in determining if Democrats will be able to wrest the majority from Republicans come November.
During the live debate broadcast by Montana PBS Bullock touted his aggressive early response to the coronavirus pandemic, including shutting down schools and many businesses in March. The virus hit Montana relatively lightly in the spring, only to come roaring back with record-high infections recorded in recent days.
The governor said Republicans including Daines want to roll back provisions of the Affordable Care Act that are key to making sure people have access to care.
“I'll protect your access to health care, even in the middle of the pandemic," Bullock said, noting that the issue was coming up soon in a case before the Supreme Court.
Democrats have warned that federal Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the nominee to replace the recently-deceased Ruth Bader Ginsburg, could tip the high court against the health care law.
But Daines said it was “unlikely" justices would overturn the health law. He said the prime considerations in choosing a justice are protecting Second Amendment gun rights and ending lawsuits that have blocked energy and logging projects.
“We have to have a U.S. Supreme Court Justice that will protect our way of life," he said. “I'll be standing behind the amazing nominee, Amy Coney Barrett."
On the pandemic, Daines said it was crucial to protect the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, but also criticized restrictions that many counties have adopted limiting the numbers of spectators at high school sporting events.
Bullock said in response that local public health officials should not be undercut.
The two candidates also clashed over the role of money in politics, with each accusing the other of being complicit in the millions of dollars in political spending from outside groups that are flooding into the contest.
They disagreed about the best approach to climate change, with Bullock promoting the advantages of renewable energy while Daines pushed fossil fuels and said technological innovations are helping reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
The candidates' face-to-face meeting in Missoula came as the national political scene was being roiled by new revelations about President Donald Trump paying scant income taxes over the past decade.
But Trump’s name barely came up during the debate and the candidates were not asked about his tax returns.
Trump won Montana by 20 percentage points in 2016 and Daines has leaned heavily on him throughout his campaign.
Bullock is barred by term limits from seeking a third term in the governor’s mansion. Before entering the race he dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary after attracting little support in a crowded field.
Voting begins soon: Absentee ballots for in-person voting are available Oct. 3 in counties that are having elections by mail and by Oct. 5 in counties conducting polling place elections.
Most counties are conducting elections by mail and must send out ballots to registered voters by Oct. 9.
Bullock and Daines meet for a third and final debate on Oct. 10, hosted by the Montana Television Network.