GOP Senate candidates square off in Whitehall

April 9, 2018 GMT

Montana’s Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate said Sunday that the national debt was a huge problem, some taking swipes at the recent budget bill passed by Congress and one saying sequester spending caps should be restored.

The four also vowed to protect Second Amendment gun rights and said local schools should be allowed to establish policies they deem fit for protecting their students and staff.

The candidates — Big Sky businessman Troy Downing, former Yellowstone County district judge Russ Fagg, former legislator and current state Auditor Matt Rosendale, and surgeon and state Sen. Albert Olszewski — took part in a forum at Whitehall High School before about 30 Jefferson County Republicans.

The winner in Montana’s June 5 primary will take on Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in the November general election. Tester was first elected in 2006 and was re-elected in 2012, but Republicans see him as vulnerable in a state Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016.

The GOP candidates were cordial during the Sunday night forum, avoiding direct criticisms of each other while aiming plenty at Tester.

But some scoffed at the recent budget bill, which included huge increases in military and domestic spending, passed with bipartisan backing and signed into law by President Trump.

Olszewski said he supported the GOP tax cuts passed late last year “100 percent,” saying they would grow the economy.

“The second punch is we need to cut spending,” he said, in part by restoring spending caps under sequestration. Attention should then turn to reducing the $21 trillion debt, first by paying back the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, he said.

Downing said the first priority was cutting spending.

“You need to stop the leaking, and you don’t do that by passing a bill that adds $1.2 trillion to the debt,” he said, adding that he supports a balanced-budget amendment.

Rosendale said he fought for spending cuts in the Montana Legislature, proposing tens of millions in cuts. Some were opposed by fellow Republicans, he said, “because sometimes that was in their backyards.”

Washington is full of politicians who “stand up year after year … saying we are going to reduce the size of government,” he said.

“You go in there and you start cutting,” he said.

Fagg said Congress first needs to balance the budget, starting with a 2019 bill that holds spending to 2018 levels. If lawmakers did that while the economy continues to grow, he said, the budget would be balanced in three years.

“I believe the national debt is the No. 1 issue facing our country,” he said. “It is unsustainable, and we all know it.”

All said they were staunch supporters of Second Amendment gun rights, something few national candidates from Montana ever criticize.

Downing said his first job was loading clay pigeons for trap shooting when he was 13, but the Second Amendment had nothing to do with hunting or target shooting.

“It’s about your God-given right to protect yourself,” he said.

Fagg said he had handled 25,000 cases as a district judge, many of them involving guns, and said more regulations would do nothing to change that.

“Criminals do not pay attention to regulations,” he said.

The candidates said schools should be allowed to impose their own security measures and allow teachers to arm themselves if that was their local decision.

“There is nothing in the federal government to keep them from putting in the type of security system they have chosen,” Rosendale said.

Olszewski said government agencies that failed to prevent or adequately respond to school shootings should face consequences.

“We have seen how the system has failed us because the bureaucracy has failed us,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte of Montana, who was elected to his first term in 2016, also attended the Jefferson County Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner. The local party, of course, is not taking sides in the GOP Senate primary.

“One of them is going to take Jon Tester down,” Jefferson County GOP Chairman Dan Johnson told everyone. “That is what we are going to do.”