HELENA - Republican U.S. Senate nominee Matt Rosendale on Monday challenged Democratic incumbent Sen. Jon Tester to a series of debates – but, at the same time, backed out of a debate scheduled on statewide TV this Sunday.
Tester had agreed to Sunday’s debate in Whitefish, sponsored by the Montana Broadcasters Association, and Rosendale earlier had indicated he would participate, telling reporters he planned to be there.
But his campaign pulled the plug Monday, saying Rosendale had made plans to be with his family for Father’s Day and is disappointed that the Libertarian and Green Party candidates weren’t invited to the MBA debate.
Tester’s campaign blasted Rosendale for deciding to “duck Montana voters.”
“Whatever the excuse, it’s disappointing,” said Tester campaign spokesman Chris Meagher. “This debate is a tradition, but of course Montana traditions mean nothing to Maryland Matt.
“Montana voters can’t trust Matt Rosendale to keep his word, but Jon Tester will be in Whitefish whether Matt Rosendale is there or not.”
Last Tuesday, Rosendale won a four-way primary to capture the GOP nomination, winning 34 percent of the vote. Former state District Judge Russell Fagg of Billings placed second with 28 percent.
The MBA often hosts the first post-primary-election debate in top Montana statewide races, and had been working for several weeks on the proposed event, scheduled Sunday morning in Whitefish, site of the MBA’s annual conference.
A panel of three broadcast journalists had been scheduled to question both candidates in an hour-long debate, which would have been televised statewide.
It’s not the first time a candidate has chosen not to participate, however. Tester’s last challenger, former U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, declined to take part in the 2012 debate scheduled at the MBA conference that year.
Rosendale, the state auditor and insurance commissioner, issued a release Monday that challenged Tester to five debates during the general-election campaign.
It said Rosendale had already committed to fall debates hosted historically by MTN News and Montana PBS. MTN News has not formally announced or arranged any U.S. Senate debate this fall.
Dewey Bruce, president and CEO of the MBA, said Monday he didn’t have a commitment in writing from Rosendale for the Sunday event, but that he thought Rosendale had indicated he would participate.
“I will tell you that I’m disappointed that they waited until the last minute to say `no,’” Bruce said.
Also in the race are Libertarian Rick Breckenridge and Green Party candidate Steve Kelly.
The MBA did not invite either candidate to the Sunday debate, because they hadn’t met several criteria indicating minimal activity by or support for their respective candidacies. The criteria include level of fundraising and spending, website presence, financial disclosure forms, support in polling and campaign activity.