Blaire Miller

(Daily Montanan) The first debate between Democratic U.S. Sen Jon Tester and Republican challenger Tim Sheehy on Sunday showed the two candidates sticking to the central themes of their campaigns – Tester as a Big Sandy farmer who works across the aisle to get things done for Montana, and Sheehy as a political newcomer and former U.S. Navy SEAL who says Tester and the old guard in Washington, D.C., have failed and new leadership is needed.

While those themes have been pushed heavily by both campaigns for nearly a year, the debate at Fairmont Hot Springs, hosted by the Montana Broadcasters Association, provided Montanans their first chance to see how the two who will be at the top of the Senate ticket in November differ when it comes to policy and not just personality.

Both men agreed on some facets of running the government and policies that would benefit Montana. But Tester showed the work he has done on both a bipartisan and partisan basis to pass legislation he said supports Montanans. Sheehy underscored his military background and entrepreneurship to say why he, with no prior political experience, should be one of 100 Americans deciding how to address issues like abortion, immigration, housing affordability, health care, military spending and foreign aid.

The race is key to which party will hold the majority in the Senate come January and has already drawn in more than $100 million in outside spending and nearly $50 million in fundraising among the two candidates. Sheehy is the latest Republican to challenge Tester, the only current statewide Democrat in Montana, as he seeks a fourth term in the U.S. Senate in a state former President Donald Trump won handily in 2016 and 2020.

Tester opened the debate by saying Montana’s values are on the line, and out of the gate said the state was changing. He nodded toward people like Sheehy, who moved to Montana a decade ago and has used his wealth to expand his businesses and property holdings, as being at least partially responsible for problems Montanans face.

“We’re seeing a lot of folks come into the state – rich folks – they want to try to buy our state, to try to change it into something that it’s not. Montana’s always been a state where your word is your bond, a handshake means something, and that the truth matters,” Tester said. “Unfortunately, many of these folks are coming in, they’re buying big ranches, they’re locking people off of not only that ranch, but the public lands around it, and that’s not what Montana is all about.”

In his opening remarks, Sheehy outlined his veteran status and again relayed his origin story into politics – the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, which began under Trump but was finished under President Joe Biden’s administration, but the culmination of which Sheehy calls a disaster because 13 Americans were killed.

“I knew at that point our nation was at a crossroads and something had to be done. And since then, there’s been no accountability for that failure. And I’m running because I’m very concerned about the direction of this nation,” Sheehy said. “…It’s pretty clear for Montanans and Americans, frankly, they don’t have confidence in their government anymore.”

The starkest divide between candidates may have come on the issue of abortion and what the future of abortion care should be in Montana and the U.S. nearly two years after the U.S. Supreme Court upended Roe v. Wade and put lawmaking for abortion care fully in the hands of the states.

Tester said he wanted to see Roe reinstated and that the federal government should not be telling women what health care decisions they should make. He said a woman’s right to choose was “on the line in this election.”

Sheehy falsely claimed that Tester supported aborting a “healthy nine-month-old baby killed at the moment of birth.” Abortion in Montana is banned after a fetus becomes viable, typically at 24 weeks, unless the mother’s life is at risk. The 1999 Armstrong v. Montana decision by the Montana Supreme Court found Montanans’ right to privacy included rights to abortion.

According to KFF, less than 1% of abortions take place beyond 21 weeks gestational age, and only 3% occur between 16 and 20 weeks. KFF research found that claims of abortion moments before birth “do not occur.”

Sheehy said he would support exceptions for fetuses that are the product of rape or incest, or to save the life of the mother.

But Tester fired back, telling Sheehy the abortion issue was too important to play politics with and that his claim about fetuses being killed at the moment of birth was “total B.S.”

“Do you want a politician or a bureaucrat or a judge to make the decision? If you do, vote for him,” Tester said. “If you want the woman to make the decision, vote for me.”

As he has for much of his campaign, Sheehy placed much of the blame for increased consumer prices, the increased illegal entries at the border, higher housing costs and American foreign relations situations at the feet of the Biden administration and, along with it, Democrats like Tester who have largely supported the administration’s efforts. He said his experience as a Navy SEAL would help him tackle several issues better than Tester.

“Democrat control of the White House and the Senate has led our nation to the worst condition we’ve been in in 40 years,” Sheehy said. “…It’s time for a change in leadership. America is not heading in the right direction.”

But Tester outlined some of the Biden administration’s policies and efforts he’d disagreed with too, like the effort to target coal production in eastern Montana and what he says has been too slow of a push to solve immigration and drug smuggling issues at the southern border.

He also noted that the U.S. produced more oil and gas last year than any year on record in saying he supported an “all-of-the-above” energy policy that includes heavy investments in renewables. Other policies he called successful that were passed under the Biden administration with his support included the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act; PACT Act for toxic exposure to veterans; foreign aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan; and the CHIPS and Science Act aimed at bringing back American manufacturing.

He criticized Sheehy for saying he would have voted against the foreign aid packages for those countries in lieu of Democrats accepting Republicans’ demands at the southern border, but agreed with him that Biden should have acted sooner with an executive order limiting immigration that the president announced last week.

Sheehy said he still wants the border “sealed” entirely, while Tester blamed factions of Republicans for caving to Trump and killing the bipartisan border bill in the Senate earlier this year.

Sheehy acknowledged the two men “agree on more than we disagree.” That included on getting veterans more mental health care, making housing in Montana more affordable, and trying to work with other lawmakers of different parties and political persuasions to run the country as best they can for their constituents.

Sheehy said he learned how to do so sitting in foxholes with soldiers from all walks of life, while Tester said his record shows he has continually done so and that’s why he keeps getting re-elected.

“In the end, I’m going to continue to listen to Montanans and take their good ideas back to Washington, D.C., and put them into law because that’s what I do,” Tester said. “It’s one of the reasons I’m rated one of the most effective senators in the United States Senate – because I work across the aisle, and I get things done.”

In their closing remarks, the two candidates again drew the distinctions between trying to uphold the way of life Montanans have experienced for decades while bringing fresh perspectives to the office. Tester said re-electing him would keep Montana the way it was historically and allow people to hunt and fish “without being millionaires.” Sheehy said the country was facing unseen threats and was at a “crossroads.”

“I believe we can solve these problems that America is facing, but it’s going to take a new generation of leaders to do it,” Sheehy said. “We cannot keep having more of the same; we cannot keep sending the same politicians back into office over and over and over again and expecting different results.”

While Tester and Sheehy are the likely frontrunners in the race, Montanans will also have an opportunity to vote for Libertarian Sid Daoud and Green Party candidate Michael Downey in the Senate race.