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Tester’s Republican challenger is leaning on his outsider status in the U.S. Senate debate in Montana

BILLINGS, Mont. — Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tim Sheehy embraced his status as an outsider who came to Montana to start a business as he tried Sunday to allay concerns about wealthy newcomers driving up property taxes during the first debate in a contest that could tip the balance of power in the Senate.

Incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats on the ballot, and Sunday’s debate marked the first time the two candidates have publicly confronted each other. Republicans only need to gain a few seats in the November elections to regain the majority in the Senate.

Tester declared Sheehy “part of the problem” amid a housing shortage and rising taxes for many Montanans after home prices rose in many areas.

“A lot of people have moved to this state, a lot of people with deep pockets, a lot of people driving up the cost of housing,” Tester said. “Tim Sheehy is not part of the solution; he is part of the problem.”

Sheehy blamed Democrats for the increasing economic pressures many households are facing. The 37-year-old political newcomer and former Navy SEAL said Tester and President Joe Biden were not doing enough to rein in inflation.

He also said he would have liked to move to Montana in 2014 to raise a family and start an aerial firefighting business near Bozeman.

“If you’re not from here, apparently Jon Tester doesn’t think your vote matters,” Sheehy said. “It has been an honor for me to create jobs in this state.”

The exchange reflected the central role that budget and economic issues could play if Republicans seek to topple Tester, 67, a rancher and former state lawmaker from the small town of Big Sandy. He is seeking a fourth term in the Senate.

Many economic indicators remain positive in Montana and across the U.S., including growing job numbers and low unemployment. But rising property taxes, along with rising costs for some goods and services, are fueling political tensions with the potential to influence the outcome of the election.

Tester is considered a moderate in Washington — a status that has helped him in the past gain support from independent voters who make up a significant portion of the Montana electorate. Still, Republicans have done well in recent election cycles and now control every office in Montana except Tester’s.

Sheehy has repeatedly tried to align Tester with President Joe Biden amid widespread public dissatisfaction with the administration’s struggle to stem illegal immigration at the southern border. Biden announced stricter restrictions on asylum seekers entering the US last week

“They’re trying to fool us by saying, ‘We’re going to fix it,’” Sheehy said. He derided a Democratic immigration bill that was blocked by Republican lawmakers as “political theater.”

“It’s time to close it,” he added about the border.

Tester acknowledged that more needs to be done on immigration and said Biden’s action on asylum should have happened sooner. He also highlighted his success in passing legislation to help veterans exposed to toxic burns work and to boost U.S. production of computer chips.

“I work across the aisle to get things done,” he said.

The candidates also clashed over abortion. Sheehy said he was against the medical procedure, with exceptions to save the mother’s life or in cases of rape or incest.

Tester countered that it should be up to women and their families “in consultation with her minister and her doctor.”

A proposed initiative that would add abortion rights to the state constitution could further elevate Montana’s abortion issue if supporters gather enough signatures to get it on the ballot. The proposal comes after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down abortion protections nationally in 2022.

Sheehy has invested more than $2 million of his own money in the campaign and has received nearly $11 million in donations. With a household net worth between $72.9 million and $255.9 million, he can benefit from much more.

Tester has reported raising $37 million. Outside groups have poured tens of millions of dollars more into both sides.

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