By Matthew Brown Associated Press
BILLINGS (AP) – Montana Gov. Steve Bullock forcefully defended the economic gains made during his first term following criticism from his Republican challenger, Greg Gianforte, at their last scheduled debate Saturday.
There’s just one month to go until the Nov. 8 election. Amid a barrage of attacks carried out by their surrogates, Saturday’s event offered a last chance for the candidates to face off in person before early voting begins.
Bullock refuted Gianforte’s claims that he has been ignoring the state’s fiscal troubles. The incumbent did not back down from his oft-repeated claims that incomes are up and the state’s fiscal health is strong. He said the state’s rainy-day reserve remains well-funded “because I insisted on it.”
Bullock accused Gianforte, a Bozeman high-tech entrepreneur of outsourcing jobs to other countries through his former company, RightNow Technologies. Similar claims were made but never substantiated by Democrats leading up to the 2012 election of Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a former executive at RightNow Technologies under Gianforte.
A perturbed Gianforte rejected Bullock’s accusations and said the firm, now owned by Oracle, created hundreds of high-wage jobs in the Bozeman area and offered a template for the kind of private-sector innovations that Gianforte said is key to Montana’s future.
“It’s frustrating that a career politician would manipulate the truth so desperately to hold onto his job,” Gianforte said. He added that layoffs in the timber industry and the pending partial-closure of the Colstrip coal-fired power plant underscored the need for a leadership change in the governor’s office.
Bullock cast his opponent as a threat to public education due to his association with groups that advocate for private schooling. He said Gianforte’s much-publicized lawsuit against the state after a property dispute with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks showed the Republican won’t stand up for public access to streams.
Gianforte blamed the dispute on a “survey error” by state officials.
In response to a question about demeaning comments about women made by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, the Democratic governor said the statements would be inappropriate if they came from a dogcatcher, let alone a presidential candidate.
“It was more than locker-room talk; it was talk about sexually assaulting women,” Bullock said.
Gianforte agreed with Bullock that the comments from Trump, contained in a 2005 video obtained by The Washington Post, were offensive. Nevertheless, Gianforte added that he would “reluctantly” continue to support Trump in order to prevent Democrat Hillary Clinton from being elected.
Nationwide more than a dozen Republican senators, congressmen and sitting governors said Saturday they would not vote for Trump.
The final Bullock-Gianforte debate took place in a television studio in Great Falls and was broadcast statewide on Montana Television Network stations.
Outside the debate, Democratic operatives tried to focus attention on Gianforte’s past support of a new sales tax. Gianforte’s campaign said Bullock was trying to divert attention from his use of a state airplane for campaign trips.
Both candidates planned to hold get out the vote rallies at sites across the state next week as the race heads into its final stretch, representatives of the campaigns said.
Montana absentee ballots are due to be mailed to voters by Oct. 14.
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