The major party candidates for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to get elected. Much more is being spent on their behalf by PACs and parties. All of that money goes to carefully presenting the candidate as he wants to be seen in ads, news releases and multiple media platforms.
So when the opportunity arises for the candidates to appear live before a statewide audience for free, why wouldn’t Republican Ryan Zinke accept the invitation? The invitation to appear for an hour of evening prime time on Montana PBS television, Yellowstone Public Radio and live video stream on billingsgazette.com? Why wouldn’t he agree to debate Democrat John Lewis before a live audience at Petro Theater in Billings? Why wouldn’t Zinke agree to stand beside Lewis and answer news reporters’ questions about the issues that are important to Montanans?
It takes political courage to face a panel of journalists whose questions weren’t written by campaign consultants. The debate sponsored by The Billings Gazette, Montana State University Billings, Yellowstone Public Radio and Montana PBS won’t be scripted by the campaigns. The candidates will have to think on their feet and talk extemporaneously. They probably won’t like some of the questions.
But Zinke won’t be there, according to his campaign manager, Alan Mikkelsen.
On June 6, The Billings Gazette invited Zinke and Lewis to debate in Billings on one of 17 dates in September. Lewis’ campaign agreed to four of the dates; Zinke’s campaign said only Sept. 29 would work. That wasn’t one of Lewis’ preferred dates, but his staff rearranged the Democrat’s schedule to be in Billings on the evening of Sept. 29.
Three hours after agreeing to that debate, Mikkelsen sent The Gazette an email proposing to move it from 7 p.m. to 1 p.m. Mikkelson said Zinke had scheduled something else for that evening, but wouldn’t say what.
Incredibly, Zinke’s campaign then issued a news release blaming Lewis for Zinke canceling the debate.
What should have been a spirited debate contrasting two candidates at 7 p.m. on Sept. 29 will be an hour-long, prime time panel discussion with Lewis. Then PBS analysts will discuss the race for 30 minutes. They’ll probably analyze what Zinke’s no show says about his commitment to the thousands of Montanans he declined to face on live media.
What could be more valuable to a Montana congressional candidate that an hour of free, statewide media that pre-empts the top-rated Antiques Road Show?
No fundraising event will buy back what Zinke is giving up. Zinke’s loss will be Lewis’ gain.