GOP Senate candidates frame race in final weeks

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May 1st, 2012

Omaha, NE – It’s a crowded field in the GOP race for Nebraska’s open Senate seat. And the three leading candidates attempted to distinguish that field Tuesday night in a debate televised by UNO Television and sponsored by the Omaha World-Herald.

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In their opening comments, the candidates set up the debate as one between three, pretty distinct, personas. In simple terms: Jon Bruning the fighter, Don Stenberg the family values man, and Deb Fischer the problem solver.

From left, Attorney General Jon Bruning, State Treasurer Don Stenberg, and State Senator Deb Fischer squared off in a debate sponsored by the Omaha World-Herald. (Photo by Jeremy Lipschultz)

First up, Attorney General Jon Bruning: “As your Attorney General, I’ve stood up for our vision. I’ve challenged the Obama administration every step of the way. From leading the fight against Obamacare to filing lawsuit after lawsuit against the EPA. I’ll take that same fight to the U.S. Senate. I’ll fight for Nebraskans.”

State Treasurer Don Stenberg: “I’m running for the U.S. Senate because our country’s going in the wrong direction. It’s going in the wrong direction because the people in Washington have forgotten the values make America great. The values of freedom and family and faith.”

And State Senator from Valentine, Deb Fischer. “Why am I running? Well, I’m not your usual politician… We have big challenges before us and I want to help solve those challenges that are facing this country. I have been effective in the Legislature. I’ve taken on those tough policy issues. We found solutions working together that helped make better lives for Nebraskans.”

In fact, the biggest differences of the three leading GOP candidates may be their style in approaching the big issues. Because on those issues, they generally agreed. Asked about government’s role in job creation, each said government must “get out of the way” of the private sector and loosen burdensome regulations. On immigration, they each took a tough stance, refusing to support a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants. And on healthcare, each advocated repealing the President’s healthcare law: a popular stand among GOP contenders in most political races around the country.

But the debate panel didn’t let them get away with pre-packaged answers, particularly if they didn’t answer the questions. Robynn Tysver, a political reporter with the Omaha World-Herald, pressed the candidates on the details of her question on healthcare.

First, to Don Stenberg. “Mr. Stenberg, one quick question,” Tysver said. “Do you believe there are people out there who can’t afford insurance?”

“Well, that’s an interesting question phrased that way, you could probably go find a few,” Stenberg responded. “But there’s also a lot of people out there, a lot of young people, who could afford insurance if they made that a priority, but they choose other priorities. It’s not that people who are very disadvantaged don’t have access to healthcare. Number one, they have access to healthcare and number two, they have Medicaid if they’re in that situation. The government can’t solve every problem for everybody and the problem in Washington is the government has tried to do that and it’s just not working.”

To Bruning, who has made “Obamacare” a signature campaign issue, Tysver pressed him on what to do with the working poor if “Obamacare” is scrapped.

“We absolutely need to take care of the least among us,” Bruning said. “I think all of us agree. Nebraska is a very charitable place. We care about the least among us. The problem is with this latest government intervention is that it’s going to increase the number of people that move to the government plan, ultimately working us toward a single payer, which is a terrible idea for America we just can’t afford.”

“But do you have a plan though to help the least among us?” Tysver pressed.

“Well, I’d tell you what I’d do,” Bruning responded. “Number one: tort reform I think is incredibly important. You have a number of doctors using preventive medicine, or defensive medicine I should say, where they’re ordering up tests because they’re afraid to be sued. That sucks a lot of money out of the healthcare system that doesn’t need to be used. When a doctor orders up five tests that he or she really doesn’t think is important, that sucks money out of the system that we could be using to take care of the least among us.”

And political reporter Fred Knapp of NET News, a familiar voice for KVNO listeners, pressed the candidates on a question of bipartisanship. In an era when that’s a rare find on Capitol Hill, Knapp asked if the candidates could name a Democratic Senator they’d be willing to work with. For her answer, Fischer emphasized her record working across the aisle in the officially nonpartisan Legislature.

“I think my record shows that I am able to work with a variety of people under a variety of issues and I’ve been able to get things done,” Fischer said.

“But as you mentioned, the Unicameral is structured that way,” Knapp said. “When you get in to the hyper partisanship in Washington, do you envision being able to continue that?”

“I believe I’m known for establishing relationships and establishing good relationships in the legislative arena,” Fischer responded. “As I said, I’ve done that. It’s hard to say which U.S. Senator on either side of the aisle that I would anticipate being friends with because I don’t know these people. But if I’m elected and go to Washington, I will obviously take time, get to know them, establish relationships.”

Stenberg agreed with Fischer, saying he couldn’t name a Senator because he’s focused on Nebraska politics, not Washington. For his part, Bruning named Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who’s retiring this year, and said he could work with him “on Israel,” calling himself an “unabashed supporter of Israel.”

The candidates did take each other on at a couple of points, in what was, for the most part, a civil discussion. Stenberg accused Bruning of running an office filled with “conflicts of interest” where he has become wealthy. Bruning countered that Nebraskans don’t like “mudslinging” and said Stenberg’s comments explained “why he’s lost three times.” Fischer added her own dig on Stenberg, saying it’s a “plus” for her candidacy that she hasn’t been running for U.S. Senate “forever.”

The candidates have just another two short weeks to make their cases to Nebraska voters. The GOP primary is May 15th. The winner in this race will likely face Bob Kerrey, the presumed front-runner for the Democratic nod.

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