HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Candidates clashed over the coronavirus response during Montana’s first U.S. Senate debate, as Republican incumbent Sen. Steve Daines faced his Democratic opponent, Gov. Steve Bullock, in a competitive race that Democrats hope to win in their quest to regain control of the Senate.
As the number of coronavirus cases in the state remains high, the candidates agreed on the need to prioritize public health over the economy. But they diverged in their assessment of the response thus far.
Daines applauded President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic, saying Trump has “led boldly.”
Bullock said the federal government has politicized the response, rather than focusing on public health.
“We haven’t gotten the federal support or all the federal leadership that would have made this better,” Bullock said. The governor added that while he was urging Montanans to stay home to limit the spread of the virus in March, the president was telling the public that the country would be fully reopened by Easter.
Following the president’s lead, Daines pinned the blame for the coronavirus pandemic on China, saying that the outbreak in Wuhan is “one of the greatest cover-ups and crimes in our history.”
While Bullock earned praise for issuing a stay-at-home order that kept infection rates low early in the pandemic, Montana Republicans have since criticized Bullock for being slow to distribute the $1.25 billion allocated to the state through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
“That money needs to be deployed to our communities,” Daines said. “It needs to get out quickly because Montanans are hurting.”
According to the state’s commerce department website, $121 million has already been spent, but the governor said that $800 million has been allocated through various grants programs. Bullock said he is reserving funds to address future challenges that arise from the pandemic.
“This pandemic is not going away, and we want to make sure to use that money wisely,” he said.
Bullock entered the race in March, after repeatedly insisting that he was not interested in running for the U.S. Senate following a presidential bid that failed to gain traction.
He credits his wife and daughter for persuading him to enter the race, telling him “’this is not a time to be on the sidelines,'" Bullock said.
However, Daines noted that in the weeks preceding his announcement, Bullock met with former President Barack Obama and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, claiming that they persuaded Bullock, who is termed out from seeking another term as governor, to run for Senate.
“Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama personally recruited Steve Bullock to run for the U.S. Senate because he will stand with them in these radical job-killing liberal agenda items,” Daines said.
Daines said that Bullock would stand with his party on key issues, saying that the governor is “too liberal for Montana."
But Bullock said he would bring an independent voice to the seat. “I’m more than willing... to stand up to my party when they go too far,” he said.
On the topic of police reform, Bullock said he would not support defunding the police, a rallying cry that has emerged across the nation in response to the recent deaths of Black people in police custody.
“But I do agree that we all – Democrats and Republicans – must do better,” he said, suggesting that all police officers should wear body cameras and receive additional training. “This ought to be the moment that we actually make a meaningful change.”
Montana has leaned Republican in recent years, with Trump winning Montana by 20 points in 2016. But the entry of Bullock, 54, into the race has put the Senate seat in play for the Democrats, who must gain at least three additional seats in November to win control of the Senate.
Bullock's name recognition after two terms as governor and one term as the state's attorney general make him well poised to fight for the seat. However, Daines, 57, has his fair share of name recognition, after serving in the Senate since 2015, following two years as the state's sole representative in the U.S. House.
The race has so far been one of the priciest on record in Montana, with both candidates drawing donations from across the country and outside groups spending millions on advertising.
Bullock has touted the strict rules enacted against dark money groups in Montana state elections during his tenure. But Daines called Bullock hypocritical for opposing dark money groups, even as some dark money groups have run ads attacking Daines in recent weeks.
“It seems like it’s only convenient for him to oppose dark money unless there’s dark money hitting his opponent,” Daines said.
The debate was recorded remotely through an online platform, as the Montana Broadcasters Association, which hosted the debate, sought to take precautions against the spread of the coronavirus.
The candidates are slated for two additional debates, hosted by the Montana PBS Debate on Sept. 28 and the Montana Television Network on Oct. 10.
Iris Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.