HELENA — Republican candidates for Montana's open U.S. House seat took shots at one another Wednesday over their positions on abortion, gun rights, spending and health care in the final debate before Tuesday's primary elections.
Many of the barbs were directed at former Sen. Ryan Zinke of Whitefish, who has raised more money than the four others contending for the GOP nomination.
The debate in Kalispell included Zinke and:
• State Sen. Elsie Arntzen of Billings
• State Sen. Matt Rosendale of Glendive
• Former state Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings
• and Drew Turiano of Helena.
It was hosted by Glacier Country Forum and the Montana chapter of Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers.
The Republican nominee will face the winner of the Democratic primary race between former Sen. Max Baucus aide John Lewis and former state Rep. John Driscoll in November's election.
The candidates' responses contained many similarities on issues from health care to climate change, but the tone of the debate turned when each was given a chance to ask a question of one other candidate.
Stapleton took the opportunity to charge that Zinke had "one of the most liberal voting records of all Republicans in the Legislature" and accuse him of changing previous positions on gun control and other issues now only to win.
How will people know if Zinke will vote with Republicans or Democrats in Congress, Stapleton asked.
Zinke responded by saying he is pro-gun, anti-abortion and pro-business, but if legislation is not right for Montana, he won't vote for it.
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, received just a 42 percent rating from the National Rifle Association.
"I don't work for the NRA," he said. "I'm a member. I appreciate and respect the NRA, but I don't work for them."
Here are the highlights from the topics that were covered in the debate:
The candidates united in bashing President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. Turiano said the rollout was so terrible "it looks like it was done on purpose to bring us to a single-payer system." There is no right to heath care in the Constitution, Rosendale said, but if people decide to purchase health care, they should have the freedom to choose what they want. Stapleton and Zinke said providing health care is a nation's obligation and a responsibility, but it should not be free. Arntzen said the "litigious environment" keeps the cost of health care up and more freedom of choice is needed.
Turiano and Stapelton sparred over this issue, with Turiano saying immigrant votes favored Democratic politicians and a moratorium on all immigration needed to be put in place immediately to save conservatives. Stapleton responded that legal immigration is a good thing. "We shouldn't be afraid of change. We shouldn't be afraid of cross-pollination. Conservative ideology is not based on the color of skin," he said.
Rosendale, Zinke and Artnzen called for sealing the borders to prevent illegal immigration.
"The nation of Israel is surrounded on all sides by very aggressive neighbors, and they can secure their borders, and you're telling me the greatest nation in the world can't do the same thing?" Rosendale said.
TRANSFER OF FEDERAL LANDS TO STATE CONTROL:
About 35 percent of the land in Montana is controlled by the U.S. government. Rosendale and Turiano called for an outright return of those lands to the state. Arntzen said she would support bringing federal land to state control, but she would not want to grow state government to do so. Zinke and Stapleton demurred, with Zinke saying reforms are needed to access and develop the natural resources on those lands more quickly, and Stapleton saying low taxes were needed to boost resource development.
All five candidates agreed reducing the national debt was a high priority. Zinke said a solution was to grow the economy by becoming energy independent, and both he and Arntzen said a reduction in government regulation was needed to allow businesses to grow and innovate. Stapleton said austerity measures are painful, "but it works in other countries and it can work right here."
Four of the five candidates either dismissed the notion of global warming or the idea that it is human-caused. Zinke was the exception. "The truth of the matter is, I don't know. I don't think anybody in this room knows," he said on whether man is influencing climate change. However, he added, that does not mean the nation should dismantle American power and industry over the issue.