Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and her GOP rival, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, sparred over how they would improve health care in an hour-long debate Thursday night that featured familiar themes.
Hawley said McCaskill adheres to the Democratic Party stance and has, over 12 years, moved away from the views of her state, where voters went for President Donald Trump by 19 points. McCaskill emphasized her independence, as someone who will work with “anyone, anytime” to address the state’s needs.
Afterward, both candidates were optimistic they had achieved their goals in the debate. Both said their policy differences were clear.
Hawley cited their differing views on the EPA, a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico and tax cuts.
“It’s between what the people voted for in 2016 and the party-line, liberal agenda that Sen. McCaskill has supported over and over,” he said.
McCaskill said, “I’m proud of my accomplishments. I think he’s trying to convince the voters I’ve been there too long. I hope they’ll look at my website, ClaireMcCaskill.com, and the more than 100 things I’ve gotten done.”
Listen to the full McCaskill-Hawley debate:
Health care – the contest’s top topic – took a sizable chunk of the debate’s time. But neither candidate broke new ground.
Hawley said he’s sticking with his involvement in a federal lawsuit that would do away with the Affordable Care Act, including its provisions requiring insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions without raising their premiums.
Hawley said, however, he is committed to still protecting people with pre-existing conditions, and cited his young son’s chronic hip and joint problem as an example.
“I think we should repeal and replace,’’ Hawley said, contending that the ACA is unaffordable and unworkable.
He said there were various alternate ways to cover pre-existing conditions: “Will McCaskill support any plan that isn’t Obamacare?”
“What we see from the Democrats is a full-throated defense of Obamacare,” Hawley said.
McCaskill noted that, so far, the Republicans controlling Congress have yet to come up with a way to cover patients who have pre-existing conditions, and have instead focused solely on trying to repeal the ACA — also known as Obamacare.
“You don’t go to court without a backup,” McCaskill said. “I am more than happy to work with anyone.”
Hawley accused McCaskill of cutting more than $700 billion from Medicare, because that cut is part of the ACA. She countered that the $700 billion is actually a cut in insurance companies’ profits and is used to pay for the ACA’s mandates for free health screenings, such as mammograms and colonoscopies.
If the ACA is repealed, she said, Medicare recipients also lose some drug coverage, because the ACA got rid of the “doughnut hole,’’ where recipients had to pay the total costs of their drugs until they hit a certain level of spending.
Neither Hawley nor McCaskill said they believed that safety-net programs such as Medicare or Social Security were the main driver of the deficit, which rose nearly 17 percent in fiscal year 2018 and is expected to grow to $1 trillion. And both pledged that they would not make cuts to those programs. But they disagreed sharply on what caused the spike.
“I would start with Obamacare,” Hawley said. “It’s going to cost over $2 trillion more over the next decade. It has proven to be outrageously expensive for federal taxpayers — but worse, it has proven to be outrageously expensive for the families of Missouri.”
McCaskill laid the blame squarely at the feet of the Republican tax plan Congress approved in 2017.
“It was supposed to pay for itself,” she said. “Revenues are down, and wages are stagnant. In fact, wages are 1.8 percent lower in this country than they were a year ago. That is also one of our big problems. We should not be adding to the deficit in a strong economy that we are right now.”
While most of the questions focused on domestic policy, both candidates were asked how the U.S. should respond to the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a contributing columnist for the Washington Post. Khashoggi has not been seen since Oct. 2, when he walked into the Saudi embassy in Turkey to get needed paperwork for his upcoming wedding. Leaked intelligence information suggests he was killed by Saudi intelligence officers, possibly at the order of the country’s ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Trump has faced harsh criticism for what some perceive as his soft response to Khashoggi’s disappearance.
McCaskill said that “everything has to be on the table,” including sanctions against Saudi rulers, if it can be proven bin Salman was involved.
“We are a beacon to the world when it comes to our democracy and our values,” McCaskill said. “I do not think we can abandon our place on top of the hill, telling the rest of the world that we appreciate freedom of the press, and we believe in human rights and democracy, and then look the other way because it might cause problems in terms of some kinds of financial transactions.”
Hawley said he supported Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s demand for an investigation to determine the facts.
“If indeed the Saudi government has been involved in any way in the death of this journalist, then I think that all options do need to be on the table, and the consequences need to be severe," Hawley said. He added that he agreed with Trump’s pursuit of “a policy of strength abroad, confronting those who have attempted to harm this country, confronting those who have attempted to rip off this country.”
A question from Maria Watson of Arnold focused on a concern for residents across Missouri: gun violence.
Watson recalled being at the emergency room with her son last year when hospital officials called a Code Silver, meaning an active shooter. “I was trying to figure out how to barricade the door and hide my son,” Watson said. “I am frustrated and angry when I see calls for common-sense laws to address gun violence met with powerful resistance from the gun lobby, followed by inaction from our elected leaders. If elected, what will you do about this epidemic?”
Hawley pledged his support for expanding background checks to include a person’s mental-health records.
“You look at many of the terrible atrocities that have been committed in recent months, oftentimes — I think most times — the perpetrator, unfortunately, has some sort of mental-health issue in their background that maybe local law enforcement knew about, but the folks that sold the firearms didn’t, or the federal agents didn’t.”
He blasted McCaskill for voting against a proposal to include those checks because it wasn’t what her party supported.
“I support universal background checks,” McCaskill countered. “We came very close to passing it. The National Rifle Association was working as hard as it possibly could to stop universal background checks. I support banning bump stocks. You would think after Las Vegas that would be so easy for us to get done. But no, there are way too many people, including most of the Republicans, who are afraid of the NRA. The NRA is very much in Josh Hawley’s corner, because they believe he will toe their line.”
North St. Louis County resident Tyale McNary asked both candidates what they would do help bridge the divide between African-Americans and law enforcement. That issue has been especially vital in the St. Louis region four years after Michael Brown’s shooting death by a police officer set off waves of protest in and around Ferguson.
McCaskill cited her experience as Jackson County prosecutor of implementing “community policing.”
“This is all about people in the community feeling that the police are working in their best interest — and the police understanding that the vast majority need nothing more than protection from them,” McCaskill said. “And that’s how we rebuild this. We can do it again if we can get the right resources into community policing. And the federal government can help with that.”
Hawley cited his role in altering how racial-profiling statistics are tracked in Missouri cities. He said his bedrock principle is that “every person and every community in this state deserves the fair and equal protection of the rule of law.”
“We’ve made some important changes to that report to get information that will help us understand,” Hawley said. “And taking steps like that where we promote this dialogue between law enforcement and local communities is critical.”
McCaskill noted a recent report from Hawley’s office showed an uptick in racial profiling. She criticized Hawley for not being more publicly forceful about those findings. Hawley responded that he worked with community stakeholders — rather than engage in “grandstanding” or “rushing to a microphone.”
Neither candidate really answered a question from Brentwood resident Tim Rudolph, who wanted to know what they would do to both protect the climate and ensure that corporations were not unfairly burdened by regulations.
“Climate change is real, it’s time we trust our scientists, it’s time we accept some reasonable regulations to keep our waters clean and our air pollution free, and obviously, turning to our alternative fuels is very important,” McCaskill said, although she did not specify what types of regulations she would support.
Hawley used the question to knock McCaskill again for being out of touch with the needs of Missouri businesses, especially farmers.
“Climate change is an important topic, of course,” he said. “I’m sure the climate is changing and that humans are contributing to it; we should look at science and see what the outcomes can be be, and what we can do. But I am very concerned about environmental regulations coming from the EPA and elsewhere that choke off our family farms. The regulations are all out of proportion, and it’s a danger, and Sen. McCaskill has supported those EPA regulations.”
Missouri voters in August struck down the state’s so-called right-to-work law, which would have barred unions and employers from requiring workers to pay dues as a condition of employment. It’s unclear whether the Republican-controlled Missouri General Assembly will try to approve the law again.
Hawley was asked if he would support a federal right-to-work law after the August statewide vote. He said he wasn’t familiar with that proposal, adding “I think the people of Missouri have been pretty clear and had the chance to vote on it.”
“The margin was pretty overwhelming. And what the people say is what goes,” Hawley said. “I will support what the people of my state support.”
McCaskill accused Hawley of dodging the question, pointing out that a major donor to his 2016 attorney general campaign, Joplin businessman David Humphreys, is a stout right-to-work supporter. She emphasized that she is opposed to the policy.
“I don’t think he wants to say anything different from the president, because he’s worried what happens when he says something different from the president,” McCaskill said.
Hawley has made no secret about tying his campaign to Trump. Whether Missourians are still supportive of the president could be a pivotal factor in who prevails in the Nov. 6 election.
Both candidates were asked about whether they support Trump’s push for a physical wall separating the border between Mexico and the United States. McCaskill said that border-security personnel have been asking for better technology — and better lateral roads to do their jobs.
She went on to say that there’s some legal problems with building barriers — including litigation over taking farm land.
“So, it is not as easy just saying sea-to-shining-sea wall,” McCaskill said. “Some places, we do need more wall. And I’m more than happy to support that.”
Hawley said he emphatically supports funding and building a border wall.
“She has mocked President Trump for wanting to build a wall,” Hawley said. “I think we need a wall. I think we need to secure our border. It’s a basic rule-of-law issue. I’m a law-enforcement agent. We need to actually enforce the laws of this country.”
McCaskill responded, in part, that she’s received the endorsement of the union that represents border-patrol agents.
Aimee Geary, a 39-year-old paralegal from St. Louis who was in the outdoor audience watching the debate in the Public Media Commons in St. Louis, said she came into the debate knowing she will support McCaskill in November and she was pleased with her performance.
Geary said she was hoping McCaskill would throw a few more punches at Hawley, but she thought “she kept it on the high, so it was very good.”
Overall, Geary said the debate was what she expected.
She said she walked away from the debate with her opinion unchanged.
“I feel like she definitely has my best interest at heart.”
Nick Cummings, 18, came to watch the debate from St. Charles, where he’s a high-school student at Francis Howell Central High School and a volunteer in a Hawley campaign office.
He was wearing a Hawley shirt under his Kansas City Chiefs jacket. Cummings said he thought the debate was “pretty even on both sides; I didn’t think there was a clear winner.”
He also said he felt like people are familiar with the pros and cons of both candidates, so “it was just another way to get everything on the table.”
Cummings said nothing that he heard in tonight’s debate altered his opinion of either candidate, because “generally a lot of what was said tonight I already knew.”
Jacob Wilson was a member of the pre-selected audience inside the debate. Wilson is a 32-year-old resident of the Tower Grove South neighborhood of St. Louis and the Missouri director of the Campus Election Engagement Project, a non-partisan student-engagement group.
Wilson said he came into the debate eager to hear how the candidates would “position and present themselves to younger voters.”
He said he has “a pretty clear idea of who I’m going to be supporting in November,” but declined to indicate which candidate that will be.
Wilson said he “was a little bit disappointed that there were no questions asked about the cost of higher education” and there weren’t a lot of questions “geared towards younger people.”
The race is critical to the efforts of both parties to control of the Senate — the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race a toss-up — something confirmed by the amount of money pouring in and out of the contest.
Hawley heads into the final 18 days of the election with slightly more cash on hand than McCaskill, although she was able to outraise him significantly. McCaskill has also spent more money on the race — mostly on TV ads.
Outside groups are spending far more than either candidate. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics’ latest tally says outside spending in the contest has reached just over $52 million, a total that does not include money spent by so-called “dark-money’’ groups, which do not have to identify their donors.
The race has been close since the beginning of the year, when a Republican poll put Hawley up by four points. Real Clear Politics’ polling data now has the race at a statistical dead heat.
St. Louis Public Radio, along with the Nine Network of Public Media and 5 On Your Side, sponsored the debate. McCaskill and Hawley are scheduled to debate in Kansas City Oct. 25.
Listen: Closing remarks from McCaskill
Listen: Closing remarks from Hawley
Reporters Abigail Censky, Jason Rosenbaum and Jo Mannies contributed to this story.
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