The five Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate debate Friday night at the Emerson Center for Arts and Culture in Bozeman. Credit: Thom Bridge / Independent Record

BOZEMAN — The Gallatin County Democrats hosted a Senate candidate forum at Bozeman’s Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture Feb. 21. Candidate John Mues used the occasion to suggest that the nomination of any of his fellow primary candidates to the general election ballot would give incumbent Republican Steve Daines a “free pass” to re-election. 

The hardball assessment stood out in the context of an event that was less a proper debate than an introduction to the candidates, and an opportunity for the Gallatin County Democratic Central Committee to solicit money to support the slate. 

Mues was the only one of the five Democrats angling to challenge Daines who put forward an aggressive case for himself, specifically, as the candidate best positioned by experience and expertise to unseat the incumbent, whom several of the evening’s candidates referred to as an “existential threat.” 

Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins made the same claim to electability, but without much effort to make a specific case. Bozeman-based State Department veteran and health-and-economic-development nonprofit founder Cora Neumann presented a strong case for her expertise in health care policy, and was laser-focused on the importance of “flipping the Senate.” Bozeman’s Michael Knoles proved himself the most systemically radical and emotionally excitable of the contenders, making a closing-statement claim that “we are a parasite on this earth and we are destroying it because we do not understand the consequences of our actions.” Bozeman fishing guide Josh Seckinger, who’d entered the race just two days earlier, rarely used the entirety of his allotted one minute for answers, and promised to depart in two days to visit all of Montana’s 56 counties and win the nomination “with gas and coffee and cheap motel rooms.” He made a solid case that he’s an excellent guy to share a boat with. 

Mues’ effort to transcend the crowded field risked running afoul of the all-in-this-together vibe of an assembly that reserved its most approving responses for attacks on Daines and Republican U.S. House Rep.-turned-gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte. Half a dozen times, Mues, a navy veteran, former teacher, rancher, and energy-sector engineer who lives in Loma, stated some variant of the assertion that he was “the only candidate on the stage” with the right combination of small-town pedigree, agricultural know-how, military credentials, and business acumen to take down Daines. Neumann’s occasional side-eye in response to the claims was the only sign that any of the other four candidates might challenge him directly on that. 

The event was moderated by former state senator and Montana Supreme Court justice Mike Wheat, who presented questions to which each candidate was given 60 seconds to respond. The format didn’t allow for much in the way of deep policy discussion, but it did give the candidates a chance to outline their positions and priorities. 

HEALTH CARE AND PRESCRIPTION DRUG PRICES

The candidates broadly agreed that health care should be considered a human right and promised to protect both the Affordable Care Act and Montana’s Medicaid expansion from Republican attacks. Nuemann, with the personal story of her father’s potentially preventable death in a lumber mill accident and a doctorate in public health, named health care her No. 1 priority and called Daines’ opposition to the ACA “unconscionable.” Mues, whose infant son is recovering from an illness that has generated tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills, said health care constitutes a national “crisis” that requires immediate legislative solutions, and then a macro-level reset. Knoles framed the issue as a matter of the corrupting influence of pharmaceutical company money in politics.

FEDERAL MINIMUM WAGE

Neumann proposed a staggered wage increase tied to local markets. Knoles provoked a heckle for saying that talking about minimum wage “is missing the point,” before offering the counter-solution of a universal basic income, a la former presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Seckinger and Collins both expressed support for a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, and Mues agreed, while making clear he doesn’t think it’s a winning issue. Mues predicted Daines would “hit every single response up here mercilessly, and he will get every single small business owner to agree with him and we will lose the election.” Mues proposed government subsidies to help business owners adjust to the increased costs that a minimum wage hike would create.

WOMEN’S RIGHTS

The candidates unanimously vowed unreserved support for women’s rights under a Trump-appointed judiciary that seems primed to roll back Roe v. Wade. Seckinger, acknowledging his mom, got one of the evening’s biggest rounds of applause for additionally suggesting that it’s “about time” to finally ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Mues said the Senate needs to reauthorize the federal Violence Against Women Act, which expired in 2019, and pass red flag gun-removal laws. Collins made a personal case for the coexistence of Christian values and choice. Neumann localized the threat to the “dangerous” leadership of Daines, who has signalled his support for a reversal of Roe v. Wade, and U.S. Rep. and gubernatorial aspirant Greg Gianforte, who, she said, would impose a religious agenda on abortion rights in Montana. 

HIGHER EDUCATION AFFORDABILITY

Seckinger, who said he dropped out of college due to the prospect of “crippling” debt, advocated debt-free college, noting that “Republicans seem to find a way to pay for everything” they want, so why can’t Dems? Mues forwarded a fractional plan for college debt repayment, with a third relieved, a third apportioned to student responsibility, and a third repayable through national service. Noting that she still carries $80,000 in college debt, Neumann expressed general support for various forms of education debt relief and emphasized the difficulty of recruiting health care workers to jobs in rural Montana when larger markets provide better opportunities to pay off student loans. Collins said he supports presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s plan, which proposes a broad range of debt-cancellation strategies. Knoles said the root solution lies in policies like universal basic income that “discourage poverty.”

CHILDCARE

Mues touted the economic return on investment of universal childcare, promoting it as a pro-business proposition. Collins agreed. Neumann, as she did several times throughout the evening, emphasized that Congress has already forwarded a raft of beneficial proposals currently stalled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The solution, she repeated, is for Democrats to win a majority in the Senate. Seckinger offered blanket support for paid family leave and universal childcare, and Knoles looped back again to the ameliorating promise of universal basic income. 

ENERGY POLICY AND CLIMATE CHANGE

Collins said that Helena would begin moving toward 100% renewable energy “on Monday,” an apparent reference to a resolution to be considered by the City Commission this week. He also said he would work to have the U.S. rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. Neumann emphasized Montana’s wind resources. Knoles advised asking indigenous peoples for advice. Seckinger proposed a national ban on new mining and an increase in drilling lease fees to fund reinvestment in affected communities. Mues advocated a global approach in collaboration with allies and increased investment in energy storage and smart energy grids. 

FOREIGN POLICY

Asked to define the most pressing foreign policy issue facing the United States, Neumann specified climate change. Knoles said the U.S. needs to restore international faith in its government. Seckinger called for the repeal of 2002’s Authorization for Use of Military Force, which gives presidents broad leeway to execute military strikes without congressional approval, and was most recently deployed as legal justification for Trump’s drone-strike assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. Mues agreed with Seckinger, elaborating on the global rise of government authoritarianism and the United States’ abandonment of the Kurdish people in Syria. Mues called Daines “weak” on foreign policy and national security. Collins called President Trump “our greatest threat.”

SOCIAL SECURITY

Describing himself as a millenial who expects to “never see” benefits, Knoles suggested that universal income and universal health care could best offset the program’s potential demise. Seckinger agreed that younger citizens will “probably never see” benefits, but said the program should be protected. Mues and Neumann both committed to ensuring that Social Security remains solvent, and both criticized Daines for supporting Trump tax bills that grow the deficit while undermining social safety nets. Collins and Neumann agreed that wealthy Americans, whose contributions to the program are limited by a Social Security payroll tax cap, should pay a larger share.

The senatorial candidates were followed by a forum featuring Mike Cooney and Whitney Williams, the two Democratic primary candidates for governor. 

For more information on all current Montana candidates for statewide office, check out the Montana Free Press 2020 Election Guide

Brad Tyer edited the Missoula Independent 2002-2007 and 2016-2018. He's also done two stints as managing editor of the Texas Observer in Austin, and has freelanced widely. Beacon Press published Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Sacrifice of an American Landscape in 2013. Contact Brad at btyer@montanafreepress.org.