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Rosendale challengers see pandemic changing odds improving in House primary
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Rosendale challengers see pandemic changing odds improving in House primary

From the Voter Guide 2020 series
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There are only two things that fuel a statewide campaign, money or shoe leather. In the Montana Republican primary for U.S. House, Matt Rosendale raised more than $1 million. His opponents were going to have to make up the difference by hitting the road.

Then, the pandemic hit, which changed everything, not only the ability to interact with voters, but also the issues people wanted to talk about. Challengers like Joe Dooling, Corey Stapleton and Debra Lamm see opportunity in that change.

Rosendale, on the other hand, still has all the characteristics of a frontrunner. Including name recognition from his 2018 Senate campaign loss to incumbent Democrat Jon Tester.

“This opportunity is so up in the air because of how we’ve had to react in the pandemic. I think it’s open. I think anything can happen,” Lamm said this week. “When I talk to people, I’ve heard from men and women that they think I have the best opportunity to beat the most likely Democrat candidate, Kathleen (Williams), because it removes the gender factor and people can focus on the issues and the policy differences.”

There are policy differences among voters, even if the issues dominating political discussions, healthcare and the economy, are the same.

Lamm, the former Montana GOP chairwoman, sees a need for government to get out of the way of hospitals, particularly when it comes to elective surgeries. The government shouldn’t be deciding what’s elective, Lamm said.

“There are hospitals that are taking the COVID patients and others that aren’t, and why should they be prevented? It’s absurd,” she said. “What’s really disturbing to me is what they consider elective. When you’re walking around bone on bone, I could give you a dozen people I know right now. That’s not elective, they have no quality of life.”

In March, members of the Montana Hospital Association endorsed the cancellation of elective surgies, which had not been suspended by the government.

Stapleton, Montana’s secretary of state, watched the business fallout from the pandemic show up in the licensing data in his office. The number of the business that didn’t pay the fee to re-register with the state was off 11% from the previous year in just a few weeks. There’s been a lot of stress on businesses as the ones deemed nonessential were forced to close. Congress has spent trillions in response to the one two punch of the health crisis and the business crisis. The challenges of the getting those major decisions right, should change the race, he said.

“We don’t even know how bad it is. We don’t know how big the iceberg is underneath the water,” Stapleton said. “If voters aren’t looking for something different, they probably ought to be because if we’re just electing ideologues who are going to throw bombs back and forth at each other, tit for tat, all that is not going to get us anywhere."

The coronavirus isn’t going away, Dooling said. Congress needs to learn some lessons and change the way it reacts moving forward. The rancher and former Lewis and Clark County Republican chairman has several takeaways from the past two months, starting with trade. Dooling said trading across the globe should have been suspended so that prices for everything from farm products to oil weren’t affected by panicked traders. He recognizes the need for social distancing, but doesn’t think shutting down most of the country for weeks at a time was a good idea.

“This virus is going to move down to the Southern Hemisphere, because they’re going to have their winter. It’s going to float around and come back up here in our fall because that’s what viruses do. And this virus will be around forever because that’s how COVID viruses are. We already have three of them floating around and this one is going to be a fourth,” Dooling said. “Can Congress throw another $4 trillion at this and have everyone work at home? What is the new threshold we’re going to do a lockdown on for sickness? I just don’t believe this is a realistic solution for lockdowns that are going to happen.”

There needed to be more data on the virus, staring with China and moving forward, so a better response could be made, Dooling said. China should be punished for not sharing information about the COVID-19.

One thing Dooling said the stay-at-home order has proven is that carbon pollution can be reduced by working at home. Roads and bridges can last longer with less traffic. Coal-fired power plants, Dooling said, can continue operating. The Green New Deal, a carbon-free environmental policy advocated by Bernie Sanders and other Democratic Socialists, is dead, Dooling said.

Rosendale has played a role on Montana’s pandemic response as state auditor, which deals with securities and private insurance. He draws from that experience when describing the challenges presented by COVID-19.

“We started back in February recognizing that we were on the verge of having a major problem. The first thing we had to do was say where is it going to have the initial impact and that’s on the financial markets,” Rosendale said. “When we saw the financial markets were going to start taking a hit, we put into place public service announcements talking about exploitation. Anytime you see a dramatic change in the financial world, there’s kind of unscrupulous individuals that will immediately start trying to offer up scams and take advantage of our seniors

“After we got that out of the way, the next impact we saw was to make sure there was adequate testing that was taking place. I personally sat down and reached out to all of our major health insurers here in the state and said ‘What are you going to do about this testing and how can you help the people of Montana. We agreed to make sure that they waived all co-pays and deductibles for COVID-19 testing so that no none had to make that a financial consideration.”

There was a role for Rosendale in working with the state’s four major health insurers to extend coverage of telehealth services.

Support from Rosendale’s Senate campaign has stuck around. President Donald Trump has endorsed Rosendale for U.S. House, after holding four Montana rallies in 2018 to support Rosendale’s Senate campaign. The fundraising machine of federal office candidate has also carried over. He received a very similar number of votes in his Senate run, as Williams did in her House run against incumbent Rep. Greg Gianforte.

This article has been updated to indicate that in March, members of the Montana Hospital Association endorsed the cancellation of elective surgies. Also, Joe Dooling is former Lewis and Clark County chairman of the Republican Party.

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