GREAT FALLS — Democrat Dennis McDonald, facing an uphill battle in his bid for Congress, challenged U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg on trade with Cuba and other agriculture issues at what could be his last face-to-face battle with the incumbent with less than three weeks before the election.
Rehberg, a Republican seeking a sixth term, has easily outpaced McDonald in fundraising so far this election cycle, and many view Rehberg as a clear favorite in the race.
McDonald opened — and closed — the debate at the Montana Farmers Union convention by hammering Rehberg for apparently switching his stance on the embargo with Cuba that many farmers want lifted so they have another market for their product. McDonald said Rehberg started getting campaign money earlier in the decade from anti-Cuba sources.
"He voted to enforce the present embargo and limit travel," said McDonald, a Melville rancher and former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. "It's hurt Montanans and farmers significantly across the state."
Rehberg countered he supports lifting the agricultural trade embargo with Cuba but not the travel restriction.
He shifted blame for trade issues to Democrats in charge in Washington, D.C., while also arguing much of the problem is urban legislators holding an upper hand over rural legislators of all stripes.
"They just view things differently than we do in Montana," Rehberg said.
He closed the debate by saying electing McDonald won't help.
"Nancy Pelosi doesn't need more help," Rehberg said, noting Democrats have lowered actual spending on help to farmers and ranchers at a time when they are increasing spending elsewhere.
The incumbent hammered Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., for overspending on health care reform, stimulus spending and other issues. He said farmers are now going to be hurt because they will let the estate and other taxes expire to pay the bills.
"We cannot continue down this path," Rehberg said. "The difficulty is they need the money — much of the tax relief is going to expire, and you are going to pay more."
Rehberg said when he was young he had to sell much of the 10,000 acres of his family's original ranch that he inherited to pay the "death tax." He said it needs to be abolished.
McDonald said the threshold on the estate tax needs to be increased so it doesn't affect farmers and small businessman, but still taxes the super rich estates.
Both candidates said they support creating a national energy policy that includes renewable energy standards and traditional sources. But Rehberg voiced stronger support for fossil fuels, including allowing drilling on the Rocky Mountain Front — while McDonald said that area needs to be protected from such development.
Perennial Libertarian candidate Mike Fellows also took part in the debate, again advocating for less government spending and restrictions.