BILLINGS, Mont. — The size and role of federal government took center stage Tuesday in a Montana U.S House debate as Democrat Kim Gillan and Republican Steve Daines challenged each other on spending cuts, taxes and the role of environmental regulations.
The hour-long face-off at Montana State University-Billings — the second of three debates scheduled in the race — had a more confrontational tone than the candidates’ initial meeting as the Nov. 6 election nears.
Daines painted Gillan, a state senator from Billings, as a tax hiker. He mocked her use of the phrase “revenue enhancers” as a euphemism for higher taxes, and pressed her on how she would rein in spending that has put programs such as Medicare and Social Security in jeopardy.
“We are doing the next generation a disservice without having a serious conversation about how to reform these programs,” he said.
Gillan shot back that Daines’ proposals to decrease the size of federal government ignored the good it can do. She also suggested Daines himself had reaped the benefits of government contracting as an executive at RightNow Technologies, a Bozeman-based maker of computer software that has counted several federal agencies among its clients.
“If it weren’t for the federal government, we wouldn’t have the Civil Rights Act. We wouldn’t have passed Medicare. We wouldn’t have Social Security,” Gillan said. “Let’s not demonize everything that comes out of Washington.”
The exchange highlighted a rise in rhetoric from both sides with only five weeks until Election Day. Montana’s sole House seat is up for grabs after Republican incumbent Rep. Denny Rehberg decided to run against Democrat U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
Libertarian David Kaiser was not invited to Tuesday’s debate, hosted by Montana State University-Billings and Billings Gazette Communications. Organizers said Kaiser was excluded because he polled below 5 percent in a September voter survey.
That poll by Lee Newspapers of Montana showed Gillan down 8 percentage points to Daines, 46 to 38 percent with 14 percent undecided.
Kaiser said during a Tuesday interview that he represents an alternative for people tired of sending the “least of the worst” candidates to Washington. He pledged to break a cycle of corruption and overspending in Congress if elected — a prospect he acknowledges is a longshot.
For Gillan, the debate was a chance to cut into Daines’ apparent lead, by trying to sway voters to her contention that Daines would line up with the Republican party’s radical conservative wing.
Rejecting what she called her opponent’s “rhetoric about regulations,” Gillan said she had worked in the Legislature to balance economic activity with government intervention such as protecting the environment with controls on pollution.
But Daines has not backed away from Gillan’s efforts to link him to GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee. He said Tuesday he was honored to benefit from a $250-per-person fundraiser that Ryan hosted on his behalf at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C., in August.
Daines said too many solutions for the nation’s problems were “Washington-centered.” He blasted environmental regulations that he said were hurting Montana’s economy, such as PPL Montana’s recent decision to mothball a coal-fired power station in Billings due in part to the cost of required pollution controls.
After a series of positive political advertisements from both sides, Daines campaign launched a new ad this week criticizing Gillan for opposing gun owner’s rights and backing President Barack Obama’s health care law. The ad also touted his endorsement by the National Rifle Association.
Gillan said Tuesday night that she has been endorsed by the NRA in past elections.
Her campaign said Daines appeared to be trying to divert attention from his allegiance to a Republican budget that drastically alters Medicare and cuts college aid.
Gillan has served 16 years in the Montana Legislature, hitting her term limit in the Senate this year. She’s hoping to fill a seat last held by Democrats in 1996 and to be the first woman elected to the state’s congressional delegation in 72 years.
Daines waged an unsuccessful 2008 campaign to be Montana’s lieutenant governor but has never held political office. His political interests date back to the 1984 GOP convention, when he was a delegate for Ronald Reagan.