Democratic U.S. Senate hopefuls touted their Iowa roots and progressive politics, but also showed their differences on issues from health care, free college and the proper response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The four Democrats who want to challenge Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, who they repeatedly linked to President Donald Trump, agreed the congressional response to the pandemic has not gone far enough. At the same time, however, they said they would have voted against the $3 trillion package approved by the Democratic-controlled House.
Too many aspects of the bill seemed intended to “placate the uber-rich,” said Mike Franken, a retired admiral. Kimberly Graham, a lawyer, called it a “dressed-up giveaway to big corporations.” Real estate executive Theresa Greenfield said it needed to do more for Iowans injured by the coronavirus. And businessman Eddie Mauro said the congressional effort lacked triggers for a universal basic income and expanded health care coverage.
Mauro wasted little time in throwing jabs at Greenfield, who has the backing of U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and “Washington establishment Democrats.”
Focusing on the need for leadership, Mauro singled out Greenfield as “lacking” in that quality.
“I have to tell you, I’m concerned about leadership within this race right here. We got people on this stage who are lacking that leadership,” he said.
Pressed, he said Greenfield has “chosen the wrong route” by laying off workers during business crises.
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Greenfield didn’t defend her leadership of a homebuilding firm during the recession in 2008 and 2009. Instead, she talked about her focus on workers, including asking the government to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up testing and the availability of essential personal protection equipment.
The candidates split on whether the Supreme Court should be expanded. Graham said increasing the number of justices from nine is “one really good option for ending the politicization of court.” Mauro agreed, but Greenfield didn’t think expansion is necessary. Franken said he wasn’t sure and would leave it to constitutional lawyers to advise him.
They also were divided on whether college should be free. Mauro said no, but the federal government should guarantee debt-free college. Greenfield would make trade schools and community colleges debt-free. Graham agreed that trade schools and public college should have no out-of-pocket costs and no one graduates with debt. Franken, who worked at a hog kill plant while in college, said college should not be no-cost. But called for expanded national service program, similar to the GI Bill, and no-cost loans to help students meet their higher education costs.
The candidates agreed health care is a right, but there wasn’t a consensus on how to deliver it. Franken and Greenfield would expand and strengthen the Affordable Care Act, Mauro called for “Medicare for All” and lowering the eligibility age for Medicare.
“If health care is a fundamental human in a wealthy and moral right, it is a human right period,” Graham said, adding that she’s confused by the way other Democrats talk about health care. “It’s not a human right if you have the money to write your check for your insurance premium or to pay a deductible or a copay.”
A public option, she said, is like “putting a Band-Aid on an infected, dirty wound.”
To address climate change, the candidates endorsed a range of measures, including rejoining the Paris Accord, promoting renewable energy, adopting the Green New Deal, and cap-and-trade and carbon sequestration measures that would benefit Iowa agriculture.
Before the debate, the Ernst campaign launched criticism of the Democratic answers to the issues facing Iowans. If Democrats flip the seat the nation risks “imposing the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, open borders, and many more socialist policies on our very way of life here in Iowa,” her campaign said.
The four “far-left” candidates are competing for the title of “Iowa’s Top Socialist,” according to a Monday fundraising appeal from the incumbent’s campaign.
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The Republican National Committee weighed in, too, to say that although Iowa voters haven’t had much face time with the Democrats, “they’ve seen enough.”
“Less than six months until Election Day and Iowa Democrats have yet to understand those they look to represent,” said RNC spokeswoman Preya Samsundar. “With policies like the Green New Deal and government-run health care that will destroy their way of life, Iowans will reject the Democrats’ push for socialism in favor of Sen. Joni Ernst’s record of protecting and defending families across Iowa.”
It was not the first time the candidates debated, but it was their first debate to air on television. A debate taped Saturday will air on a handful of Iowa television channels beginning Tuesday. In Eastern Iowa, KWWL-TV will run it Wednesday. Also, WHO-TV and KCAU in Sioux City are hosting a debate Thursday.
A fifth candidate, Cal Woods of West Des Moines, will appear on the ballot but he has dropped out of the race and endorsed Franken.
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