Gubernatorial candidates Greg Gianforte, left, Tim Fox, and Al Olszewski prepare for a debate in Billings on Jan. 23, 2020. Credit: David Crisp / MTFP

BILLINGS — Anyone hoping to see fireworks at Thursday’s Republican gubernatorial debate in Billings might have been better off watching the impeachment trial drone on in Washington, D.C.

Before a crowd of several hundred people at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center, the three candidates agreed in broad terms on a range of issues. They think taxes should be lower, abortion should be outlawed, regulations should be reduced, drug wars should be fought, and Democrats have held the governor’s office for too many years — positions that drew steady but restrained applause from the audience.

They also emphasized their support for President Donald Trump, despite allegations of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress playing out this week before the U.S. Senate. Trump’s strong support among Republicans was highlighted by a merchandise table filled with bumper stickers, mugs, and other memorabilia for sale proclaiming “Trumptana.”

Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski, who debated each other in Helena in late November, did aim a few subtle digs at Greg Gianforte, who is giving up his U.S. House seat to run a second time for governor, after losing to Steve Bullock in 2016. In his opening statement, Olszewski, whose numbers have lagged in the few polls that have been published, said he had no plans to drop out of the primary campaign.

“I personally don’t want to live in a world with no plumbers.”

—U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte

“I will not be bullied, bought, or body-slammed out of this race,” he said, apparently referring to Gianforte’s guilty plea to an assault charge after body-slamming a reporter near the end of his 2018 House campaign.

Fox said incumbents should stay in the U.S. House to help Republicans retake control of Congress. He also emphasized his lifelong residence in Montana, including his birth in Hardin.

Gianforte acknowledged that he did not have the good fortune to be born in Montana, but he said he made up his mind to live here 40 years ago and eventually started a successful business in Bozeman.

Speaking with Montana Free Press after the debate, Fox was somewhat more pointed in his criticism of Gianforte. He said that Gianforte’s apparent lead in polls is based not only on his name recognition, but also on push polling, which uses loaded questions in an attempt to manipulate poll results.

He also explained why he mentioned during the debate that he and Olszewski had earned their support from pro-life groups. The Gianforte Family Foundation donated $200,000 between 2013 and 2017 to a pro-life organization — the Charlotte Lozier Institute — winning its endorsement, he said.

For his part, Gianforte stuck by his pledge to honor Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, declining to criticize fellow Republicans. Instead, he emphasized his business experience and his work with Trump and fellow House members in Congress.

“Montana could take a page out of the national playbook,” he said, referring to Trump’s support for tax cuts and eliminating regulations.

“Running state government is not like running a business.”

—Montana Attorney General Tim Fox

Fox, one of six co-chairman of Trump’s re-election campaign in Montana, said “the cavalry got here” when Trump was elected president. He praised Trump’s support for getting rid of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, and he noted his own role in an effort by Montana and Wyoming to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Washington state’s denial of a permit for a port facility that could ship Montana coal.

Gianforte, along with Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, State Auditor Matt Rosendale, Sen. Steve Daines and State Superintendent for Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, is also listed as a co-chair of the Trump campaign.

Olszewski said Trump should be thanked for tax reforms, which cut tax rates for most taxpayers, while also contributing to an estimated trillion-dollar federal budget deficit in 2020.

“Our government needs to go on a diet,” Olszewski said. Entitlements should be a safety net, not flypaper or a trampoline, he said.

While the candidates agreed in large part on the issues, they differed in how they would approach the office. Gianforte repeatedly emphasized the importance of business experience in government.

“Jobs and prosperity are not created by government programs,” he said.

Fox, who is term-limited out as attorney general, repeatedly responded to questions by noting reforms he has backed as attorney general, and said his experience in state government gives him an edge in finding ways to cut waste and run government more efficiently.

“Running state government is not like running a business,” he said.

Olszewski, a former flight surgeon in the Air Force who is now an orthopedic surgeon in Kalispell, emphasized his expertise in health care policy. He favors a tax credit that would cover the cost of individual health insurance premiums.

“The most expensive health care is free health care,” he said.

His Born-Alive Infant Protection Act, introduced during the 2019 session, would have guaranteed medical care for infants born alive after an attempted abortion. The bill passed both chambers, but was vetoed last year by Gov. Bullock, who said federal law already provides protections and medical care for infants.

Olszewski said Bullock has vetoed 80 percent of his bills, including one that would have taken on the “pharmaceutical Mafia” to reduce drug costs.

The other candidates also favored measures to reduce drug costs, and Gianforte argued for protecting people with pre-existing conditions, but he did not clarify how he would propose to do that. 

“The most expensive health care is free health care.”

—State Sen. Al Olszewski

All three candidates pledged to fight the influx of illegal drugs into Montana. Olszewski took perhaps the strongest stand, suggesting he would offer a $50,000 bounty for drug and human traffickers and call out the National Guard if necessary.

Gianforte said 90 percent of Montana crime is drug-related, and he expressed support for drug treatment programs such as Judge Mary Jane Knisely’s STEER (Sobriety, Treatment, Education, Excellence and Rehabilitation) court in Billings. Seventy percent of people treated under such programs are still free of drugs and holding jobs after three years, he said, at a fraction of the cost of incarceration.

Fox touted his support for a variety of programs, including increased border security, early intervention programs for drug users, and K-9 units.

Gianforte called for increased teacher salaries after citing the case of a Montana high school teacher who started to cry as he told Gianforte he hadn’t been able to afford to eat three meals a day for over a year. Gianforte also called for more high-tech jobs and for vocational training.

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“I personally don’t want to live in a world with no plumbers,” he said.

More than anything, all three candidates agreed that Montana has suffered under 16 years of governance by Bullock and his predecessor, Brian Schweitzer. All three indicated they could work well with other politicians, and Fox, who called himself a statesman, said the state needs leaders who tell the truth.

He was asked after the debate how that squared with his support for Trump, who famously attacks critics and who has been found by the Washington Post to have made more than 16,000 false or misleading claims in his three years in office.

Fox declined to answer directly. He said he would leave that for voters to judge.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect the fact that Rep. Greg Gianforte is a co-chairman of President Donald Trump’s Montana reelection campaign.

David Crisp worked for newspapers in Texas and Montana for nearly 40 years. He now teaches writing and journalism at Rocky Mountain College.