Senate Debates Are Mostly Heat and No Light
Policy + Politics

Senate Debates Are Mostly Heat and No Light

What are voters actually hearing from Senate candidates in the final bruising weeks of the midterm election campaign? If a handful of debates from across the country this week are any indication, they’re shedding little of substance but a ton of partisan sniping.

Tuesday evening’s debate in North Carolina between embattled Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis is a case in point.

Related: 9 Senate Races That Will Change the Balance of Power   

Tillis, the state house speaker, attacked freshman Hagan as “ineffective, liberal and part of Washington’s ills.”

Hagan chose to open the debate in Research Triangle Park, N.C., by declaring that “Speaker Tillis has built a record of dividing our state, always putting the wealthy and big corporations first.” Later, she called Tillis “spineless” for criticizing President Obama’s handling of the ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq while refusing to say what he would do.

Things went downhill from there.

Meanwhile, an equally rough-and-tumble one-hour debate at the Georgia National Fair between Senate Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn and Republican candidate David Perdue was almost impossible to hear. The crowd that gathered to see the candidates face off began screaming 20 minutes before the 7 p.m. start time and never shut up.

Related: There’s Little Confidence in Obama, Despite Economic Gains 

“After Nunn’s question to Perdue regarding how high the minimum wage should be, one panelist, Jeff Hullinger of NBC’s Atlanta affiliate, tweeted out that ‘no one can hear each other including us,’” according to Time. Before the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jim Galloway asked Perdue an Obamacare question, Galloway quipped, “You’re going to have to pardon me if this question has been asked already, but I’m kind of deaf at this point.”

In New Hampshire, Republican challenger Scott Brown repeatedly called freshman Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen a “rubber stamp” for the Obama administration. Shaheen, for her part, waited until the end of their first debate to call the former Massachusetts senator an outsider who doesn’t understand New Hampshire, the Associated Press reported.

The two candidates tangled over which one was more in tune with the needs of small businesses. They also differed sharply over the issue of reproductive rights and whether Brown held moderate “pro-choice” views, as he claims.

Shaheen pointed out that Brown had voted for a House resolution to block funding for Planned Parenthood and that he had co-sponsored an amendment allowing  employers to deny health care coverage for services they say violate their moral or religious beliefs, including birth control. 

“You have to listen not just to what Scott Brown has to say about this issue with respect to pro-choice, you have to look at what he’s done,” she said. “This effort was not about religious freedom, it was about denying access to contraceptive coverage for women.”

Related: Democrats See Glimmer of Hope in New Senate Polls   

Not all of the half dozen or so Senate debates this week were partisan brawls or rote recitations of party boilerplate. Many voters are still wrestling with which candidate to support, and some are gauging the candidates based on how well they come across and think on their feet. With nine very tight races likely to determine which party will claim control of the Senate in January, televised debates may well tip the balance one way or another.

Yet in many cases this week, the debates did more to amplify the ideological and political gulf separating the two parties than clarify views.

In an hour-long debate in Colorado on Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall and his GOP challenger, Rep. Cory Gardner, spent much of the time “dodging questions and blurring each other’s record on a litany of issues,” according to The Denver Post, which sponsored the event.

Udall ducked a question about his opinion of President Obama’s job performance, while Gardner balked at providing a one-word answer to the question of whether humans contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. He later said, “Yes, the climate is changing, I’ve said that all along. I disagree to the extent that man is causing it.”    Udall simply replied “yes.”

Related: Louisiana’s Messy Senate Race Could Hijack the Election: Welcome to the Jungle    

Udall, however, had trouble giving a straight answer to whether he supported the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. He said yes, but only after scientific studies are completed. Gardner said the science is clear and he supports it.  

Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster and political analyst in Denver, complained, “There’s no big issue, and we are not entirely attentive, and massive amounts of advertising are washing over folks in bundles.”

“I think it explains the volatility you see,” he added. “It’s hard to say what the state of the race is.”

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