On the surface, Saturday night’s gubernatorial debates epitomized the uncommon crossovers of Montana politics, with Republicans saying things like, “We need to lower the cost of prescription drugs” and “I will not play politics with people’s health care,” while Democrats talked of shooting guns with “Uncle Bobby” and the need to live within one’s means.

But beyond the nontraditional rhetoric, the usual partisan divisions were evident during the two-hour virtual debates hosted by the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation

The panel of questioners included journalists Taylor Tucker of KFBB in Great Falls, Cyndy Koures of NBC Montana in Missoula and Mike Dennison of the Montana Television Network out of Billings. They asked both party’s candidates many of the same questions: how to prioritize the $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act money that must be spent by the end of the year; what can be done about rising property values that put land and home ownership out of reach for many Montanans; and what each would do to guide the state out of the economic and public health crises caused by the novel coronavirus.

Democrats Whitney Williams and Mike Cooney went first, touting their Montana pedigrees. Williams is a 6th-generation Montanan whose mother, Carol, was the state’s first female Senate majority leader, and father, Pat, served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 18 years. Cooney, who is the current lieutenant governor and has spent his decades-long career in public service, is the grandson of Montana’s eighth governor, Frank Cooney.

Republicans U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, Air Force veteran and state senate member Dr. Al Olszewski, and Montana Attorney General Tim Fox followed for the second hour, with Fox and Gianforte sparring for much of it. 

All the candidates said CARES Act money should go to Main Street, Montana, no one voiced support for a sales tax, and each agreed that high housing costs need to be addressed. Their differences emerged not so much in identifying the challenges facing Montanans, but in determining how best to address them.

Williams repeatedly touted the potential revenue from legalization of adult-use marijuana (estimated at $100 million per biennium) as a way to pay for education, continue the state’s Medicaid expansion beyond 2025, and provide property tax relief. Cooney countered that revenue from marijuana taxes would take too long to realize, and advocated instead an overhaul of the state’s tax structure, saying minimum wage workers should not be paying at the same rate as those earning $500,000. He also suggested an increase in the earned income tax credit and a revision of the state’s capital gains tax. 

The Democrats agreed that property taxes are partly to blame for the state’s housing problems, with Cooney noting that the tax code is “based on a 100-year-old economy.” Williams suggested a tax credit for full-time residents, and said “wealthy out-of-staters with second, third and fourth homes should pay more.” 

Both candidates regard outdoor recreation as a natural driver for the state’s economy, but Williams took pains to draw a distinction between herself and Cooney on public lands issues. While stating her opposition to a proposed copper mine near the Smith River, she attacked Cooney, a former three-term secretary of state, for his vote as a member of the land board to allow the continuation of a lease to a company that wanted to develop a cyanide heap leach mine on the Blackfoot River (a project that was effectively banned by a 1998 citizens’ initiative). “Some places in our state are too precious, including the Smith River and places like the Blackfoot,” she said.

Williams continued on the offensive, asserting that Cooney displayed a “lack of leadership” on that and other issues, including housing and funding for mental health. “The [housing] crisis has existed, this is not a new issue, and he has not done enough to address it. How much longer do you need?” she asked.

“It’s so easy to blame other people for these things,” Cooney replied, later pointing out that he’s been in the trenches of state government for decades while Williams was working in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. “I’ve shown up for the big fights, year after year,” he said.

In the second part of the program, the Republican candidates staked out their positions early. Gianforte emphasized his desire to conduct a “top-to-bottom regulatory review to remove barriers to prosperity,” and called out the state departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources and Conservation by name. “I think we need new leadership at the DEQ and DNRC so we can start issuing permits for projects here in this state,” he said. “We should be back in our forests doing forest management, that would bring revenue into our state.”

Olszewski echoed that priority, saying, “We are the Treasure State and we need to work to maximize and open up our natural resource industry. That’s timber, that’s continuing to expand coal.” 

Olszewski differentiated himself from his opponents, however, by continuing to oppose the state’s Medicaid expansion program, claiming that half of Montanans covered by the expansion are ineligible for benefits and vowing to repeal it. Olszewski also continued to oppose the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes water compact with the state. 

Fox, a two-term attorney general, touted his relationships within the Department of Justice and his leadership in opposing internet sales taxes. He attacked Gianforte repeatedly, accusing the representative of buying endorsements and lacking substantive policy proposals, asserting that Gianforte’s “negatives make it impossible for him to win in a general election.”

Despite having pledged allegiance to Ronald Reagan’s maxim that one does not attack fellow Republicans, Gianforte defended himself calling Fox’s accusations, “shameful, because he’s using false statements to manipulate voters.”

All the Republican candidates promised to lower property, income and business equipment taxes, with Gianforte quipping that “You don’t tax your way to prosperity.” Olszewski said funding for public education should be separated from property tax revenue. Royalties from natural resources, he said, would make up the difference for schools, as well as help fund infrastructure and first-responder costs.

All three proclaimed support for anti-abortion measures, with Fox pointing out that he filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

While Democrats Williams and Cooney repeatedly expressed desire to collaborate with Republican colleagues, there was little mention of bipartisanship from the Republican candidates. Many of the Republican candidates’ specific goals, however, transcended party lines: expanding opportunities for distance learning and telehealth through improved broadband access; fighting opioid and methamphetamine addiction; and providing better opportunities for Montana’s youth so that, as Gianforte said, “we don’t export our kids along with our beef and grain.”

Ballots for Montana’s June 2 primary election will be mailed to registered voters on May 8. 

Andrea Peacock is a former editor of the Missoula Independent, the author of Libby, Montana: Asbestos and the Deadly Silence of An American Corporation, and co-author of The Essential Grizzly: The Mingled Fates and Men and Bears. A 2010 Alicia Patterson fellow, she has worked as a contributor to Denver Westword and assistant politics editor at the Austin Chronicle. She co-owns Elk River Books in Livingston.