GREAT FALLS, Mont. — The leading candidates for Montana’s only congressional seat tangled Saturday over money, including taxes, campaign financing and $240,000 in investments by the Republican candidate that financial disclosures link to index funds with substantial holdings in Russian firms that are under sanctions by the U.S. government.
The investments gave Democrat Rob Quist fresh ammunition to lob at Greg Gianforte during their only televised debate before the May 25 special congressional election. Libertarian Mark Wicks also took part in the debate.
The sanctions were put in place by the Obama administration three years ago because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Money was a key issue of the debate, with Quist and Wicks teaming up against Gianforte to denounce the amount of cash he has thrown not only into the race for congress but also the $6 million of his own money he spent on his failed bid for governor last year.
Quist urged voters to “make a statement that Montana cannot be bought and cannot be for sale.”
Gianforte, who made millions when he sold his software company, RightNow Technolgoies, to Oracle has been unapologetic about his wealth.
“I can’t be bought, and my allegiance will be to you,” Gianforte spoke into the camera.
During the hour-long debate held in the studios of KRTV in Great Falls and televised across the state, Quist pounced on Gianforte’s investment during a question focused on North Korea.
“I was really dispirited to hear the other day that Mr. Gianforte has a quarter of a million dollars in stocks in Russian companies that are on the sanctions list,” Quist said.
Quist latched onto the revelations first reported by the Guardian, a British newspaper, on Friday.
Gianforte initially declined to respond to Quist’s charges, but asked for an opportunity to do so when Quist brought up the matter again.
“Anyone who invests in emerging markets around the world have investment in Russia,” Gianforte responded. He called it a small portion of his investments and pledged to put his investments in a blind trust.
The campaign has acknowledged about $150,000 in investments with VanEck Vectors Russia and about $92,000 with IShares MSCF Russia. Both companies deal in exchange-traded funds, which are similar to mutual funds.
Gianforte’s assets range between $96 million and $327 million, according to disclosures he is required to file with the U.S. House.
Montana’s only House seat became vacant in March when Ryan Zinke resigned to become U.S. Secretary of Interior.
David Parker, a professor of political science at Montana State University and a longtime observer of Montana politics, said the candidates performed adequately in reaffirming their views among voters who already support them.
“The person who had the most to gain was Rob Quist, and to a certain extent Mark Wicks, because he hasn’t been on a statewide stage yet. So in that sense, Quist comes out well,” Parker said. “I think a lot of the impressions on Gianforte were already formed.”
National Republican groups are spending heavily in the race to keep the seat. National Democrats have also begun investing money in the race, but the party’s priority appears to be in backing another candidate in a June special election in Georgia.
With just 26 days left until the special election, the candidates have little time left to gain traction with voters.
During the debate, the candidates tackled topics ranging from abortion to tax policy, and from gun rights to health care, including the repeal of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act.
Even before Saturday’s debate began, there were questions over whether Quist would be allowed to wear his cowboy hat during the debate. It’s no small detail for a candidate who is trying to charm voters with his folksy, everyman persona to contrast with Gianforte’s more aggressive and all-business demeanor.
But Gianforte, who boastfully campaigned for governor as an entrepreneur who knew how to bring prosperity to the state, was more understated in his approach during the debate. He depicted himself as an engineer who would be a problem-solver in Washington.
Wicks pleaded with viewers to consider him a sensible alternative to the two major party candidates, saying he would be an independent voice in Congress for Montana.
Wicks offered the most memorable analysis of the night, when he compared Gianforte to a luxury car, Quist as a utility truck and himself as the workhorse that will tow folks out of trouble.
“I see Mr. Gianforte as a luxury car. It’s really smooth and comfortable getting down the road. But at the end of the day, it just wants to be parked with the other luxury cars down at the country club.”
He described Quist as “a little half-ton pickup” that is tiny and bright with a good sound system that will eventually end up at the side of the road.
“Now me? I’m the work truck,” Wicks said.