Personality and issues spotlight heated House debate in Missoula

MISSOULA — With inflation, abortion rights and climate change on the menu, there’s no shortage of debate topics in the final weeks of the campaign for Montana’s new congressional seat.

But the showdown also has a strong dose of personality as the three candidates for the House District 1 seat gather for the City Club Monday lunch in front of hundreds.

It was a very hot start to this latest race for Montana’s new congressional seat. But that’s to be expected given the fiery nature of the contestants.

Judging by Monday’s debate turnout, Montana voters haven’t lost interest in the state’s most-watched showdown between Democrat Monica Tranel, Libertarian John Lamb and Republican Ryan Zinke.

“It’s just about telling the facts and the truth and letting people decide what’s true and what isn’t,” Zinke supporter Leslie Whitman told me outside the debate. “I definitely believe that he is an honest individual and that he really wants the best for Montana and he will fight for it.”

But Tranel supporter Kevin Shey was equally opposed to Zinke’s return to Washington, noting his support for former President Donald Trump.

“His opponent Ryan Zinke is sponsored by the man who orchestrated the first coup in American history. And we can’t allow that. We can’t allow that to represent Montana,” Shey said. “A man who doesn’t even live in Montana. We need a woman who’s been here a long time, fighting for everyday Montanans, regardless of political affiliation.”

The showdown hit all the expected notes of inflation, abortion and public lands. But I was irritated by law enforcement and guns.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Zinke told the capacity hearing. “You have to support our law enforcement and you have to close the border.”

Tranel demanded to respond, overriding veteran moderator and reporter Sally Mauk.

“Let me be clear and unequivocal. I support the funding of our law enforcement and police. I have never said anything different. And for you to misrepresent me in front of this crowd does a disservice to democracy. Thank you.”

Zinke replied, “Are you legal counsel for Montana 350?”

“Do you want to have a debate? Let’s have a debate,” Tranel asked determinedly as she confronted the former home secretary. “I represent 350 Montana and as such have reduced your energy costs which 350 has bravely fought for.”

The two men were not done with their confrontation, arguing over the Second Amendment minutes later.

Zinke asked “Monica, do you know what the Second Amendment says?”

“Do you?” Tranel fired back.

“Yes,” Zinke replied.

“Say it,” Tranel demanded.

“Must not be broken,” Zinke said to a combination of applause and heckling.

While Lamb steered clear of verbal punches, he agrees that looks were critical, especially for independent voters.

“Most people don’t realize there’s another party and they don’t really know about the other party,” Lamb told me afterwards. “So sometimes when they see the name ‘libertarian’ they think ‘well, they’re liberals’. Or they’re this, or that. They don’t really know us. We’re not in a box. I’m a Libertarian ‘Ron Paul’.”

“Because people deserve to hear from us,” Tranel said before, commenting on the importance of the debates. “They deserve to see us side by side and judge us for who we are and what we think. John Lamb has accepted that and I want Ryan Zinke to agree too.”

“There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty and doubt in the direction the country is going. And in Montana, those are our values,” Zinke told reporters. “We’re a little different here. You know, the Second Amendment ranks a little higher than some states. Our lifestyle, our outdoor experience is important. And we’re going to have to defend that.”

Although Monday’s debate may show that the best defense is a solid offense.

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