By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
HELENA – Well, defending one of his most controversial votes probably wasn’t how Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester wanted to spend his time in the third and final debate against upstart Republican challenger Denny Rehberg.
For a good share of the Bozeman event, Tester, feverishly working to persuade voters he deserves a second six-year term in the Senate, repeatedly played defense over his support of President Barack Obama’s 2010 health-care reform law.
Polling released just days before the debate revealed a tied contest, so both candidates were eager take final punches and sway the relatively few undecided voters toward their respective corners.
While Tester again and again tried to turn the discussion to divisive social issues such as women’s health care and funding for certain government entitlements, Rehberg drove the debate back to health-care with much force.
As has been his strategy throughout the entire contest, Rehberg continually linked Tester with Obama, an unpopular figure in Montana politics. Rehberg, the state’s lone congressman since 2001, said Tester put Democratic Party politics ahead of Montanans’ best interests when he supported the president’s health care reforms – now dubbed Obamacare.
“The problem is, Obamacare costs jobs, it’s more expensive than they told us it was going to be, it doesn’t solve the problem and stole $716 billion from Medicare,” Rehberg explained. “It’s not a good plan.”
Tester stood by his vote, selling what he sees as the law’s positives: preventing insurance carriers from denying coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, increasing competition and adding eight years to Medicare’s life.
“If a mistake was made, it’s that we didn’t implement it quick enough,” Tester emphasized, adding that the law holds insurance companies accountable to the American people.
To begin the next volley, moderators asked Rehberg what he would do for Montanans with pre-existing conditions who would lose coverage if the health-reform law is repealed in a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate next year.
Rehberg dipped into elements of federalism, arguing that Montana had coverage plans in place for high-risk and non-insured residents and that the state should handle those problems. Using the question to segue back into his main argument against Tester, Rehberg again rapped the Democratic on the reforms.
“If you’re upset about the insurance companies, all you’re doing is replacing an uncaring, big insurance company with an uncaring, even bigger federal government,” Rehberg chided. “That is not a solution.”
Tester fired back.
“There’s people out there who wanted single-payer, who wanted government health care; that’s not what this is, congressman,” Tester retorted, again returning to his case that the law would increase competition among health insurance carriers and help uninsured American access coverage.
Just minutes later, Rehberg forced Tester to discuss Obamacare again during the portion of the debate when moderators allowed candidates to question one another.
Rehberg, in a severely elongated query, asked Tester why he would support a law that inserts the government into the health-care market, forces job losses and hurts small businesses across the state.
Tester answered, trying to cast Rehberg’s scenario as imaginary or reaching. “Going by what you said, that would be not a good thing to do,” Tester said, playing along momentarily. “Bottom line is, this is not government health care. I know it’s a great thing to say … it’s a great talking point for folks to talk to the media about, but this is not government health care.”
The Democratic senator has said all along that, while the health-care law isn’t perfect, it’s a step in the right direction away from a failed system. “The old system that we had did not work,” he said, hammering away at Rehberg. “If you cannot afford to get sick in a country, it puts the economy in a bad, bad way.”
The candidates each have just more than two weeks to persuade voters of his readiness for the next term in the Senate. Polling released last week by Rasmussen Reports, generally a conservative survey firm, showed the race locked in a 48-48 tie.
The poll of 500 likely voters taken Oct. 14, shows 2 percent undecided and 3 percent backing a different candidate. Libertarian Dan Cox, not named in the Rasmussen poll, might prove the defining element in this tight contest.
Rasmussen’s sampling error was plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Here’s a 35-minute debate clip, hosted by MTN:
Contact: Dustin@Watchdog.org, or @DustinHurst via Twitter.