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Tester, Sheehy face off in first U.S. Senate general election debate

Tester-Sheehy Debate
Posted at 5:53 PM, Jun 09, 2024

FAIRMONT HOT SPRINGS — On Sunday morning, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and his Republican challenger Tim Sheehy went head-to-head in the first general election debate, for what will be one of the most closely watched races in the country this year.

The hourlong debate was sponsored by the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation and held at Fairmont Hot Springs, in conjunction with the annual MBA convention.

Several times during the debate, the two candidates found themselves agreeing about which issues are key for Montana, with both saying they’re concerned about things like rising housing costs, veterans’ mental health and the threat from China. However, they also laid out some clear differences.

Both men accused the other party of politicizing border policy. Sheehy called President Joe Biden’s executive action this week to cap asylum requests “pandering” before an election.

“This was an intentional border crisis, and now they're trying to fool us to say we're going to solve it before we get there,” he said. “And time and time again, Joe Biden and Senate Democrats, including Jon Tester, have had the opportunity to shut down that border, pass legislation to do so. Instead, we've had messaging bills that are nothing but political theater that have continued this terrible border crisis. It's time to shut it down.”

Tester criticized Republicans in Congress who voted not to advance a proposed border deal that would have made changes to asylum rules and provided funding to expedite processing and expand security.

“That bill went nowhere,” he said. “Why? Because, quite frankly, people were told not to vote for it because they wanted to keep it a political issue in this country. It's one of the reasons my opponent said he wouldn't vote for the bill if he was in the Senate, before the bill was even released to read. Truth is, I was sent to Washington, D.C. to solve problems. There was a solution. Congress failed.”

The two men also sparred over their positions on abortion – Tester saying the right to reproductive freedom was on the line in the election, and Sheehy accusing Democrats of supporting abortions “up to the moment of birth.”

“I'll always protect the three rights for women – rape, incest, life of the mother – and at some point, the life of the baby does matter,” Sheehy said. “At some point, when the baby's viable, when it can feel pain, when it can come out of the womb and be a healthy child to grow and become our next generation, that baby has rights, too, and we have to have commonsense protections for the baby's life as well.”

“For you to say that we’re killing babies at 40 weeks is total B.S.” Tester responded. “The bottom line is nobody's talking about government taxpayer, payment for abortions. What we're talking about is who makes the decision. Do you want a politician or a bureaucrat or a judge to make the decision? If you do, vote for him. If you want the woman to make the decision, vote for me.”

Tester referred to his background as a farmer and former teacher in making the case that he represented Montana values that people coming in from out of state are trying to change. During a discussion about housing prices, he specifically referred to Sheehy, who grew up in Minnesota and moved to Montana in 2014 after leaving the military.

“We also need to be realistic about what's caused this problem,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of folks moving into this state, a lot of folks with thick wallets, a lot of folks that drive up the cost of housing, and quite frankly, it's resulted in unaffordability in housing. And I would just tell you, on the housing front, Tim Sheehy is not the solution; he's part of the problem.

“Well, you heard it again: If you come here from out of state, you're part of the problem,” Sheehy responded. “If you're not from here, Jon Tester doesn't think your voice matters apparently.”

Sheehy, a Gallatin County business owner, said he was proud of the jobs he had created in the state and that he had built affordable housing for his employees so they could live in the area.

Sheehy said Montanans are unhappy with what they see out of Washington, D.C., and that he’s the candidate to bring a change. He sought to tie Tester to the policies of the Biden administration.

“This agenda coming out of this White House has been empowered by the Democrat-controlled Senate – and primarily by a deciding vote that could have stopped so many of these bills, but 95% of the time supported them,” he said. “Jon Tester and I could both be good men who want the best for the future. We can also disagree on how that should be achieved. And right now, Democratic control of the White House and the Senate has led our nation to the worst condition we've been in in 40 years.”

Tester said there are issues he’s pushed back against the administration on, and he’ll continue to do so, but that he’s also proud of things achieved over the last three years.

“An infrastructure bill that's the biggest investment in infrastructure since the Eisenhower administration – something has been talked about my entire life and never been done, to make sure every road, bridge, people are wired with broadband, electrical transmission grid is up to 21st-century standards,” he said. “Things like the PACT Act, which deals with toxic exposure for our veterans, had never been passed. If you want to say I’m the deciding vote to beat that, I think would be a bad, bad decision.”

You can watch the full debate on the Montana PBS Facebook page.