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MTGOP’s Snoozer Debate Likely Seals the Candidates’ Fates

by Matthew Monforton Read Profile arrow_right_alt

Last night’s Republican gubernatorial debate between Rep. Greg Gianforte (MT-AL), Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, and State Senator Al Olszewski featured something largely absent in most political debates: candidates who routinely tried to answer moderators’ questions rather than jumping into unrelated topics.

Which was unfortunate, because the evening consisted of sterile inquiries by moderators who quarantined conservative issues like a Chinese coronavirus.  If ever there was a time for a conservative candidate to give debate moderators the finger and speak directly to Republican voters’ real concerns, it was last night. 

Not a single question was asked about immigration – despite a recent Trump Administration executive order giving governors sweeping authority to reject “refugee” resettlements. 

Not a single question about Second Amendment rights despite increasing numbers of Democrats favoring outright gun confiscation and a gun-rights initiative appearing on Montana ballots in November.

Not a single question about the CSKT Water Compact despite Olszewski previously and correctly characterizing it as the “most divisive legislation in modern Montana history.” 

Not a single question about religious liberty despite a Kalispell mother having her case – one of the most important religious discrimination cases ever – being argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court 24 hours before Thursday’s debate in Billings.   

Not a single question about Democrats and a large swath of Republicans in the Montana Legislature voting for an increase in taxpayer funding for abortions performed in the state.

The moderators did find time, however, for two rounds of questioning about property taxes.  Because one just wasn’t enough.

And despite a thousand Montanans being addicted to opiates for every one unsolved murder occurring on an Indian reservation, the moderators asked about the latter but not the former – because that’s what’s important to the Billings Gazette.  The candidates sincerely decried the unsolved murders of Native American women.  But none mustered the courage to say what everyone in the room and everyone in Montana knows: high murder rates in Indian Country result from century-old cultural pathologies that a governor sitting in downtown Helena can do virtually nothing to mitigate. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 showed there’s a market for such brutal honesty. It would have been nice to have heard some of that last night.

Here’s a rundown of how individual candidates fared last night:

  1. Greg Gianforte

Throughout the evening, Gianforte’s answers were crisp and on message.  Nearly every one included his two main talking points: (1) a governor is a state’s CEO who needs a Trump-like business plan to succeed and (2) Gianforte’s the man with that plan. 

He also promised that department heads in Helena will roll if he wins and called for freezing state government expenditures.  If that actually happened, rising revenues would result in surplus funds.

With a GOP president declaring “Who the hell cares about the budget,” as Trump did last week, it was refreshing to hear a MTGOP candidate at least pretend to support limited government.  Of course, it’s hard to square Gianforte’s promise with the national GOP’s fiscal policy, particularly with Trump trumpeting trillion-dollar-plus deficits during an economic expansion.  But any peep of criticism about Trump is a death sentence for apostates running in a GOP primary.  So even if Fox or Olszewski had spotted Gianforte’s contradiction, the realities of today’s GOP prevented them exploiting it. 

Like other Montanans supporting Gianforte before Thursday night, I heard nothing during the debate that would cause me to subsequently reconsider.

But, aside from promises of limited government, I didn’t hear much that was inspiring, which is likely how Gianforte wanted it.  Word on the street is that Team Gianforte insisted on a stale debate format with a limited amount of time (75 minutes rather than 2 hours) to discuss mostly business-related topics.  In fairness to Gianforte, most candidates in his shoes do likewise.  Gianforte is the frontrunner, frontrunners are in the business of staying in front, and minimizing exposure to debate zingers helps keep them there.   

That strategy has a downside – at least for the growing numbers of us concerned by Democrats hellbent on erasing our borders, seizing our guns, redefining gender, redefining marriage, and silencing any Christian who objects.  Gianforte made no effort last night to connect to these folks, and if he had a primary challenger who could, he might be in trouble.  But he doesn’t, so he’s not. 

Thus, Gianforte’s Trumpy message of applying business acumen (he started an IT company in a Bozeman garage in the 1990s which he sold to Oracle less than two decades later for half a billion dollars) to the government of a state that Trump won by 20 points in 2016 will likely carry the day – at least in the primary.  

2. Tim Fox

After vowing in 2012 to fight Obamacare during his first successful run for statewide office, Attorney General Tim Fox spent the next 8 years tacking left on almost every policy issue. So much so that, as I noted last spring, he could have won the Democratic primary and then taken on Gianforte in the general election.

Fox began his campaign last spring by throwing scraps of red meat to us right-wing rubes – such as his memorable selfie (which has now mysteriously vanished) taken while standing in front of a Chick-Fil-A during its pre-woke era.

The Tim Fox that showed up last night, however, largely dispensed with the conservative charade.  When asked about the Legislative Auditor calling out the Bullock Administration’s fraudulent enrollment of thousands of ineligible patients on Medicaid rolls, Fox merely said that the “jury was still out.”  He denounced efforts to cut state spending across the board and insisted that cuts should be targeted – without ever explaining what, specifically, should be cut.  He repeatedly touted his ability to compromise with Democrats, contrasting himself to “polarized leaders” who “draw lines in the sand,” a reference to conservatives who keep campaign promises.

Fox was at his best when he talked about what attorneys general do best: dragging bad guys into court. His list of bad guys included sex-traffickers, opiate manufacturers, and states like Washington attempting to block Montana coal from reaching Asian markets.

Fox’s problem is that, for a majority of Republicans, the bad guys include Democrats with whom Fox brags about cutting deals.  Marc Racicot could sell that in the 1990s.  But Racicot Republicans are now a distinct minority – replaced by GOP voters who’ve learned that “deals,” “compromises,” and “reaching across the aisle” are always code for more taxes, more spending, and more regulation.

Fox had a genuine, heartfelt moment at the end of the night when he asked for prayers for his wife in light of the toll campaigning for statewide office imposes on family.  That challenge must be especially grueling when a campaign is obviously futile. Life is short, even under the best of circumstances. And Fox hasn’t always been in the best of health. He needs to be honest with himself, his family, and his supporters as to whether he should remain in the race.  

3. Al Olszewski

For Al Olszewski, a charismatic surgeon from Kalispell, last night’s debate was a missed opportunity.  Those of us who know, respect, and admire him could only lament about what might have been.  Dr. Al would’ve been the front runner in the GOP primary for Montana’s at-large congressional seat had he filed for it, and would’ve been our strongest candidate to hold the seat in November. But Olszewski instead filed for a governor’s race that includes a gazillionaire congressman and a two-term attorney general – both of whom have won statewide elections and amassed vast warchests.  Which means any hope for Olszewski rests on waging a guerrilla war over issues that Republicans actually care about, rather than those on the Gazette editorial board’s agenda.

That didn’t happen – at least not last night. Olszewski started strong in his opening speech with a shout-out to Kendra Espinoza, a single mom in Kalispell who will become household name after the U.S. Supreme Court restores to her daughters the scholarships that faith-hating Democrats and their lackeys on the Montana Supreme Court voided last year.  Neither the moderators nor his competitors mentioned Espinoza or her case.

But there was no follow-up by Olszewski on issues that matter to conservatives.  Cheap shots about bodyslamming won’t close the 30-point gap between Olszewski and Gianforte because Montanans long ago decided how they felt about Gianforte’s “incident” with a Guardian reporter.

The problem for Olszweski isn’t a lack of ammunition to wage a conservative insurgency.  Fox and Gianforte are on the wrong side of Medicaid Expansion, which has doubled the pool of women eligible for taxpayer-financed abortions. And neither have been pressed on Trump’s Executive Order 13888, which grants governors the authority to reject refugee resettlement in their states.  Most grassroots Republicans want that authority invoked.  Most of their governors, including Republican governors, do not – making the issue a steel crowbar for any guerrilla conservative willing to swing it.  

None of these issues were raised by the debate moderators.  No matter – Olszewski should have brought them up anyway and dared the moderators and his opponents to shut him down.

If he plans on remaining in the race, Olszewski needs to pick two issues – three at the most – and hammer them day in and day out if he’s to have any hope of winning, or even garnering more than 20% of the vote.  Doing so would help both him and his party.  Conservatives are being ill-served by a Montana Republican Party catering primarily to the Montana Chamber of Commerce, and their resulting disillusionment may ultimately extend Democrats’ 16-year reign in Helena.

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