For the first time in decades, candidates for Montana’s lone congressional seat won’t debate in Billings.
Republican House candidate Ryan Zinke, who had earlier agreed to a statewide televised debate in Billings on Sept. 29, is no longer available, according to his campaign manager Alan Mikkelsen.
The prime-time debate slot, organized by The Billings Gazette, Montana Public Television and Yellowstone Public Radio, will be filled by a panel discussion with Democratic House candidate John Lewis, who said he’s willing to proceed without Zinke.
Zinke's campaign initially agreed to the debate. In an email to Gazette Editor Darrell Ehrlick on Aug 13, Mikkelsen said "We are issuing a tentative acceptance of the House Debate on Sept. 29, pending development of a satisfactory program with the following caveats."
Zinke didn't want Libertarian candidate Mike Fellows included in the debate. Mikkelsen said Fellows would be a distraction. Zinke also wanted to make sure he was asked about foreign policy, job growth and economic development -- standard debate questions.
Three hours after agreeing to the debate, Zinke's campaign emailed The Gazette again, stating that the campaign had scheduled over the event. Zinke's campaign then proposed rescheduling the event to 1 p.m.
Friday, Zinke spokeswoman Shelby DeMars issued a statement blaming John Lewis for debate cancellation. She would not say how Zinke would be spending his evening Sept. 29. The candidates have another debate scheduled in Bozeman on Oct. 4, she said.
"Ryan will continue to talk about the issues Montanans feel are important and the need for more leadership and less politics" DeMars said, "We have agreed to debate Lewis on Oct. 4 and have offered to debate on other dates as well, we're just disappointed that the Lewis campaign isn't willing to work with us to find a date to debate later in October."
Earlier, Zinke's campaign had indicated Sept. 29 was the only day out of 17 dates offered that would work for the Billings debate. Lewis spokeswoman Kathy Weber initially indicated that fundraising events would prevent him from participating Sept. 29. But Lewis canceled the his other events to attend the debate and was fully committed before Zinke backed out.
"Lewis understands that the people of Montana expect to hear an open and honest debate when it comes to choosing our lone U.S. House seat," Weber said. "That is why he cleared his schedule to share his vision for cleaning up Congress, protecting Medicare and Social Security and investing in education. It's unfortunate Senator Zinke is backing out. Montanans deserve the opportunity to see the stark contrasts in their visions for Montana's future."
This will be the first time decades that Montana's two candidates for Congress didn't debate in Billings. Yellowstone County represents roughly an eighth of the vote in statewide elections and normally attracts the attention of statewide candidates for public debates.
The Sept. 29 time slot for the live debate was the most prominent time on the Montana Public Television schedule. Typically "Antiques Roadshow" appears during that hour. Montana PBS committed to preempting the series' season premiere for the debate.