The four candidates vying for the Republican Party nomination in the race to replace Senator Ben Nelson took to the stage Thursday to debate everything from Obamacare to immigration to a proposed “war tax.” The four candidates have different ideas for how to fix problems, but the goal remained the same: eliminate big government.
The four candidates – combat veteran Shane Osborn, Midland University President Ben Sasse, businessman Sid Dinsdale, and attorney Bart McLeay – answered questions from the audience in turn, having little time to address each other but plenty to answer policy questions with sufficient depth so as to distinguish themselves.
Osborn, the frontrunner, emphasized his time in combat as what distinguishes him from the pack. He argued that Congress is as flippant with national security issues as it is because it lacks veterans and that the troops are sorely underrepresented in the legislature. Speaking as a soldier, he also distinguished himself by being the only one of the four candidates to argue that shrinking government also required a look at the defense budget. “There is waste in every aspect of the government,” he suggested, “even defense.” He also called for rejection of amnesty and described immigration as a “national security issue.”
On the issue of tensions with Russia, all four candidates agreed that a call to military action in Ukraine and against Russia would require serious considerations before making the decision. Osborn immediately refused to agree to send NATO troops to hold back Russia: “readiness is at an all-time low,” he argued, with troops exhausted from fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in other foreign outposts.
On the immigration question, all candidates agreed. Sasse provided a concrete answer for the problem of securing the border, however: “look to Israel,” he suggested, which reduced illegal immigration by 99% by simply building a wall on the border. “This isn’t rocket science,” Sasse noted.
Sasse came out of the gate the most aggressive against President Obama, both on immigration and health care, but delivered the line of the night on the issue of spending. Asked whether he would cut farm subsidies, Sasse replied that the problem was not the subsidies but the food stamp funding earmarked onto the bill. Sasse would support instead splintering the funding to create “a farm bill that is actually about farming.”
Discussing spending with the President, Sasse continued, was almost a nonstarter because of his seeming divorce from reality. Here he differed from Osborn, who suggested that “even with Obama” Congress could pass a “simple, fair flax tax.” “He said ‘we need to end the age of austerity,'” Sasse noted of the President, when spending is at an all-time high. “I have no idea what he’s talking about… he’s the Kim Kardashian of spending in Washington.”
The candidates all faced the most challenging audience question of the night on the Affordable Care Act: what would you tell someone who was not insured before the ACA was passed and is now? “We’ve got to fix the problem in Lincoln, not Washington,” Sasse replied, while Sid Dinsdale argued that, as an uninsured person, “you already had access [to health care],” but the burden of the ACA will make individual living situations worse.
The candidates all hesitated to answer the question that received the most laughs: if you couldn’t vote for yourself, who would you vote for? Both Dinsdale and Osborn dodged the question entirely. McLeay also dodged the question, reaching a vote for himself by process of elimination: “I’ve got my head of Veteran’s Affairs [Osborn], head of Health and Human Services [Sasse], and the Department of Banks [Dinsdale], so that only leaves me!” Sasse was the only candidate to give something close to a real answer: “my ten-year-old… would vote for Sid.”
Overall, the debate was amicable and saw little candidate interaction, but by their views on policies the candidates distinguished themselves without having to shoot one another down. The candidates entered the race with Osborn at a slight advantage, though having lost a major advantage in the polls that he once had to Sasse. Dinsdale and McLeay continue to poll in the single digits.
Osborn entered the race a favorite, with the backing of the Republican establishment and support from Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Reports have surfaced of McConnell working against Sasse after the latter attacked him personally in an ad against Obamacare, with some claiming that lobbyist sources close to McConnell are actively campaigning in private circles against the former Bush administration deputy health czar.