DEBATABLE: The four Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate in Nebraska held their final debate before the May 13 primary election.
By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. – Days ago, radio show host Kevin Thomas promised he’d have some good questions for Nebraska’s four Republican U.S. Senate candidates at their final debate before the May primary separates the wheat from the chaff.
If Thomas hoped his questions would separate the wheat from the chaff, he was sorely disappointed, because the candidates mostly stubbornly stuck to their talking points rather than directly answer the questions. The “debate” was very civil with just a few jabs by former State Treasurer Shane Osborn directed at Midland University President Ben Sasse.
Osborn went after Sasse less than expected as the race has tightened and Sasse nips at his heels – the Weekly Standard reported earlier in the day that a private poll by an “independent outside group” has the race in a statistical tie, with Osborn leading with 31 percent and Sasse right behind at 30 percent.
The real action was on Twitter, where campaign consultants and supporters offered a running commentary during the debate. Right away, campaign consultant Andrew Northwall noted on Twitter that “The folks here had to be prompted to clap for Sasse. Maybe he can get some help from his friends in DC?”
Dinsdale sideswiped both Osborn and Sasse in his opening and again later in the debate for seeking the support of outside interest groups.
As Osborn talked about his military service, Sasse was smiling, prompting Osborn’s guy Northwall to tweet that he’s “grinning at Osborn for talking about being a veteran. What’s this guy’s problem with vets?”
Prompting Sasse senior advisor Jordan Gehrke to reply, “Andrew, Ben just specifically thanked Shane for his service. We were all here and saw it. Thank you, and please drive through.”
Sasse had said we owe a debt of gratitude to every American who has worn the uniform. Osborn is a former Naval officer who briefly became an international story when his plane was nearly knocked out of the sky and he landed on a Chinese island, where he and his crew were held captive.
Asked about campaign finance reform, Sasse said Americans spent more money on chips than campaigns in 2006 and 2008. Now that’s debate prep.
Omaha banker Sid Dinsdale said he likes transparency but doesn’t trust the government, President Obama or Harry Reid.
LINEUP: The GOP candidates for the Senate (from left to right) Bart McLeay, Shane Osborn, Sid Dinsdale and Ben Sasse.
Asked what level of budget reform people will tolerate, McLeay said Medicaid should be doled out to states as block grants, Social Security should be privatized and Medicare will need limits some day.
Sasse talked about how Obama is underinvesting in defense, and said other cuts must be made in entitlement programs and discretionary programs, then delivered his first one-liner of the night: “To imagine that career politicians can willingly cut spending is like imagining that we can send Justin Bieber back to Canada willingly – it just ain’t gonna happen.”
Dinsdale talked about how much money Washington is grabbing out of our pockets, and said “we’ve gotta deal with entitlements” for people “maybe below 50 years” saying to the 40-something moderator, “You’re not counting on those entitlements.”
Osborn talked about how “they’re robbing” from Social Security but you “certainly don’t start by means testing” which he said other candidates have mentioned. Instead he advocated tort reform and clamping down on fraud.
Asked how the U.S. should respond if Russia invades the Ukraine, Dinsdale said economic sanctions and delivered his one-liner, saying “the former head of the KGB (Putin) has met the community organizer, and it’s no contest.”
Sasse joined in the Obama-bashing, saying, “Our allies no longer trust us and our enemies no longer fear us” and that Obama has a naïve view of the world.
“You know how far we’ve fallen when Jimmy Carter is calling us weak,” he said. Zinger number two.
McLeay said he doesn’t think America can intervene militarily, then beat up Obama more for drawing a red line in Syria before consulting Congress, and then walking back.
“A superpower should never lead from behind,” he said.
Osborn noted that he’s collected intelligence on almost every country the U.S. is having problems with today and would be the second combat veteran in the Senate since 9/11. He, too, says Obama is weaker than Carter and “that’s hard to do” – must have had that line cued up before Sasse beat him to it.
Asked about the effectiveness of the feds’ War on Terror, Dinsdale said we need to stay the course and recognize we are in a war with terrorists, saying Obama’s “kumbaya tour in Egypt” was a disaster.
“Our president cares more about what is on our iPhone than what is going on in the world,” he said.
McLeay then showed his debate preparation skills by reeling off a laundry list of terrorist groups and terrorists, prompting Leavenworth Street blogger to tweet that he “just name-dropped the entire Mideast.”
Sasse again decried the Obama administration’s underinvestment of defense, saying the nation now spends more on health and entitlements and is “headed to where the U.S. is just a big insurance company that happens to own a Navy.”
KLIN’s Thomas tried to get the candidates to distinguish themselves from one another by asking what policy point of an opponent they oppose on Obamacare.
Osborn said he was against Obamacare way back in 2009.
“I didn’t just say I was against Obamacare when I was looking for votes,” he said. “I haven’t evolved on Obamacare.”
And then, Osborn did it: He mentioned his top opponent, Sasse, by name, saying Sasse’s Obamacare alternative plan includes means testing which “sounds like class warfare.” (Sasse’s plan would gradually increase the eligibility age for Medicare, move Medicare to a defined contribution system and adjust Medicare premiums for wealthier people.)
Osborn said we need free-market solutions with the ability to sell plans across state lines – which Sasse’s plan also calls for.
Sasse replied by saying he’s always considered Obamacare a budget-busting, country-wrecking program, and noted he’s the only candidate who’s read the entire law and has proposed a comprehensive private-sector alternative.
“I won’t rest until it’s gone,” he said.
To which McLeay replied, “ I don’t need to read far into a comic book to know it’s super heroes in capes and I don’t need to read far into Obamacare to learn the same.”
Then he advocated allowing people to buy insurance through associations and companies to sell across state lines – also in Sasse’s plan.
Dinsdale said he doesn’t intend to offer an Obamacare alternative – he’d get others to do that. He said the true problem with the health care system is cost, not access.
Asked to name a provision in Obamacare they’d keep, nobody did, and Sasse took the opportunity to call it the single greatest assault on individual liberty, saying people are forced to subsidize abortions by paying taxes.
“Uncle Sam is actively in the abortion business,” he said.
Asked whether they’d support a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, McLeay said after the border is secured, he’d be open to a path to residency – with background checks and no federal benefits or voting rights – to “bring people out of the shadows.”
Sasse said he opposes amnesty and a pathway to citizenship and can’t go beyond that until the border is secure.
Dinsdale again recounted how he visited the Mexican border and it’s “a sieve” that must be completed.
“You’d be embarrassed and ticked if you saw it,” he said. To which amateur comedian/Tweeter Dan Moser replied, “By end of (this) campaign, Dinsdale will be saying he leaped the border fence, strapped cocaine all over his body and came back in unnoticed.”
Osborn, too, said he’s also against amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
“This nation is built on legal immigration,” he said. “We have laws and we have to enforce them.”
Asked if Obama should suffer any repercussions if he exceeded his constitutional authority, the candidates all took the opportunity to beat up on Obama more.
“He thinks he’s a dictator, not a president,” Osborn said.
Asked what changes they’d like to see in federal farm policy – aside from separating the food stamps program – all the candidates said they’d like to separate the food stamps program. Osborn said the crop and livestock insurance portions are most important, Dinsdale said government needs to stay out of farmers’ way, McLeay said crop insurance and an indemnity program need to be funded,
All four said they wouldn’t participate in earmarking.
Asked the proper role of the feds in regulating business, the candidates didn’t seem to find one, bashing environmental and business regulators. McLeay said he’d like to dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which “should never have been created.”
In their closing remarks, Osborn said the Senate needs more people who will put country first, which he’s proven he’ll do as a naval officer.
“I won’t raise the most money, I won’t spend the most money, but I will not be outworked,” he said, apparently referring to Sasse’s bigger war chest.
McLeay said he’s been a voice for freedom as an attorney, and Sasse noted he’s never run for office before. Dinsdale noted 86 percent of his campaign contributions have come from Nebraskans and he’s only been to Washington, D.C., once during the campaign, taking a swipe at Osborn and Sasse by saying if you court special interest groups “that’s who you’re going to listen to” if elected.
FUTURE POLITICIAN? After the debate ended, Ben Sasse’s 2-year-old son, Breck, hopped into the chair previously occupied by his father and began talking into the mic.
Leavenworth Street’s summary: “If you hate fireworks and (like) identical answers (“no”), this was YOUR debate.”
Gehrke’s summary: “The guy who is attacking tonight is not the guy who believes that he is winning this race.” That’s a reference to Osborn.
After the debate was over and most of the audience had drained out of the room, Sasse’s 2-year-old son, Breck, jumped in the chair formerly occupied by his father and began saying unintelligible things into the microphone before being whisked away. And as the campaigns began sending out press releases declaring their candidate the debate winner, it was pretty clear who’d stolen the show.
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