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In their first primary debate, the five Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate voiced similar views on most policy issues and called out Republicans — including incumbent Sen. Steve Daines — for not looking out for Montanans.

The candidates spoke Friday evening at the Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture before about 350 people.

They all declared health care a human right, said education and child care need to be more affordable and vowed to address climate change.

Daines loomed large in the debate. Each candidate criticized him and said Democrats need to win in November.

John Mues, a Navy veteran and energy engineer, criticized Daines for trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and neglecting foreign policy.

Cora Neumann, who has worked in public health, said Daines is a threat to women’s rights and is beholden to corporate interests.

When Mike Knoles, a quantum mathematician, said Daines must be defeated in November, he even drew a supporting comment from the moderator, former Montana Supreme Court Justice Mike Wheat.

Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins said, “I’m running for the U.S. Senate because each state deserves two senators. Montana has been shortchanged. Montana has one senator. The other senator decided to join the executive branch.”

The candidates diverged on a possible increase to the minimum wage. Neumann said she’d support a staggered increase that takes into account local economies. Knoles said rather than raising the minimum wage, he’d push for a universal basic income.

Meanwhile, the three other candidates — Collins, Mues and fly-fishing guide Josh Seckinger — explicitly supported a $15 minimum wage.

They also drew distinctions on health care. While they all support making health care more affordable and accessible, they disagreed on how to do it.

Mues and Collins were more measured, saying they support the Affordable Care Act and will work to protect and build on that law. Neumann said she would protect Medicaid expansion and work toward a public option. Knoles declared health care an “inalienable right” and Seckinger called for Medicare for All.

The candidates said climate change is an urgent threat. Collins said he would rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement immediately upon taking office. Neumann and Mues said Montana must invest in renewable energy. Seckinger pledged a national ban on new mining and to increase oil and gas royalties to pay for renewable energy development.

The candidates were friendly throughout the debate although Neumann drew a subtle distinction between herself and the other candidates when they were asked about women’s rights.

“I am very happy to be surrounded by four men here who support a woman’s bodily autonomy,” she said.

Neumann, of Bozeman, has far outraised the other candidates in the race, ending 2019 with $463,000. She has worked in public health, economic and public lands. She also launched the Global First Ladies Alliance and worked with first ladies and presidents around the world on policy issues.

Collins has the second highest fundraising total with $237,000. He came to Montana as a refugee from Liberia and defeated four-term incumbent Helena mayor James Smith in 2017. He is the only candidate who has previously won elected office.

Knoles, of Bozeman, has focused his campaign on ideas rather than his background. He spent much of Friday’s debate advocating “for those who are falling through the cracks” and for eliminating corruption from politics. Although he hadn’t raised any money by the end of 2019 — according to the Federal Election Commission — he has found much support on Twitter, gathering 26,500 followers.

Josh Seckinger, who announced his candidacy Tuesday, is a Bozeman-based fly-fishing guide. He answered most questions concisely with a quip or a few sentences, drawing laughter from the audience.

The five candidates will face off in the June 2 Democratic primary. Daines will face Daniel Larson, a first-time candidate from Stevensville who manages two hardware stores and announced his candidacy this week.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.

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