- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 22, 2014

SIDNEY, Mont. (AP) — Republican Steve Daines and Democrat Amanda Curtis clashed over energy and the government’s proper role in the industry during the first U.S. Senate debate in Montana’s oil patch on Tuesday in Sidney.

It was only the second meeting of the candidates since Curtis entered the race in late August following the withdrawal of Sen. John Walsh. It’s likely to be their last face-to-face meeting ahead of the Nov. 4 election.

Daines hammered on a theme of Washington, D.C. bureaucratic over-reach and singled out the Environmental Protection Agency for hindering coal, oil and gas production.

The first-term congressman from Bozeman appeared more at ease in Republican-leaning Richland County than he was during a debate in Billings the night before, offering up his now-familiar message of smaller government but also taking some jabs at Curtis.

“She claims to be one of us, although she has a 100 percent voting record with the Northern Plains Resource Council,” Daines said, referring to a Billings-based conservation organization. “That group wants to shut down coal. That group wants to shut down oil and gas in our state.”

Curtis sought to play up her working class roots, as she did during a Monday debate in Billings.

The Butte math teacher and state legislator stressed her support for coal miners and refinery workers, while warning that large corporations shouldn’t have excessive influence over the state’s natural resources. She suggested Daines has catered to those business interests at the expense of Montana.

“Every time I make a decision that will affect Montana families, I will have Montana families at heart, not the wealthiest corporations,” she said.

The candidates’ differing views on government also emerged on several other topics:

—TAXES

Daines called for an end to the estate tax, which he referred to as the “death tax.” He said the tax makes it harder for farmers and ranchers to pass on assets to their offspring.

Curtis shot back that her opponent was mischaracterizing the issue and seeking to protect the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans who would gain the most from the tax’s elimination.

—HEALTH CARE

Curtis depicted the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act as a welcome change for tens of thousands of individuals who previously did not have health insurance.

“The Affordable Care Act is working,” she said.

Daines responded that the law should be repealed and “replaced with a Montana-led solution.”

—EDUCATION

Daines criticized the federal Common Core curriculum standards as a “top-down” solution from Washington, D.C. that is being forced onto states. “There’s strings attached to federal (education) funding,” he said. “We should let Montana decide what curriculums should be, not a bunch of bureaucrats.”

Curtis said having common standards in education would ensure that a student from eastern Montana has the same skills and resources as one from Nebraska.

“I’ve been a classroom teacher for 11 years and one of the reasons I have dedicated my life to education is I know it’s the path out of the poverty I grew growing up,” she said.

The race for the open seat that’s been held by Democrats for more than a century now reverts to the airwaves, with both candidates expected to make a final advertising push in the two weeks before the election.

Daines had considerably more to spend on the effort, with $1.6 million in cash on hand as of the end of September versus just over $500,000 for Curtis.

Libertarian candidate Roger Roots said he was invited to the event in Sidney but chose not to attend because he did not think he would get much time to speak.

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