Republican U.S. Senate hopefuls spar over campaign ads, views, qualifications
With attacks ads now on TV and in mailboxes, Missouri’s three major Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate shed their previous public veneer of civility Friday night for what was billed as their last televised debate before the Aug. 7 primary.
Businessman John Brunner, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and U.S. Rep. Todd Akin blasted each other’s campaign tactics, questioned qualifications and challenged policy positions during a sparring that lasted throughout most of the one-hour appearance, aired on stations throughout Missouri.
About 200 people watched the three-way battle, held in Washington University's Edison Theater. St. Louis station KMOV-TV (Channel 4) and its CBS cohort in Kansas City, KCTV, were the cosponsors, with anchors Larry Connors (KMOV) and Brad Stephens (KCTV) serving as moderators.
Friday night’s atmosphere contrasted with the candidates’ previous forums and debates, in which they generally embraced the same conservative stances on most major issues. All three are seeking to challenge U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Among their final debate’s hot topics: Brunner contested Akin’s oft-stated opposition to the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” by bringing up a February 2009 story in the St. Louis Beacon, entitled “Akin plans to introduce bill requiring Americans to have health care insurance.”
In the article, Akin said in a lengthy interview with the Beacon staff that an insurance mandate might be the best way to help bring down medical costs and eliminate insurers’ practice of not covering pre-existing conditions.
Akin, Brunner spar over insurance mandate
Brunner said Akin’s comments were proof that he lacked the “steady hand on the wheel’’ and conservative commitment that Brunner believed was needed to fight the health-care measure in the U.S. Senate.
During the debate, Akin replied that he examined the issue and subsequently concluded that “the idea of a mandate, I don't think works."
Later, when Brunner brought up the Beacon article again, Akin asserted that Brunner has “got a ‘mud factory’ going.”
Afterward, Akin said he and his staff had examined the insurance mandate in early 2009 in response to its initial promotion by conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation.
“We look at a lot of things,’’ Akin said. “We decided it was a lousy idea.” He noted that he never did introduce a bill calling for an insurance mandate.
During the debate, Akin repeated his assertion that Obamacare represented “stage three cancer of socialism,” and needed to be entirely repealed.
Akin emphasized several times that he did want to revamp the insurance industry so that people could keep their insurance as they changed jobs.
Steelman, who also opposes the Affordable Care Act, said she wanted the insurance industry to be covered once again by anti-trust laws.
Steelman blasts Brunner support of Dooley
Meanwhile, Steelman joined Akin in condemning Brunner’s portrayal of them as “career politicians” and his recent ads that show images of his rivals morphing into a picture of President Barack Obama.
Steelman and Akin said it was laughable to compare them to Obama. Brunner said his ads’ points were that his rivals had supported hefty spending proposals during their careers as state lawmakers and later, in Akin’s case, in Congress.
Steelman contended that Brunner, a wealthy businessman seeking his first office, didn’t understand how government works and was misleading voters with his portrayal of himself as a man who worked his way up.
“He inherited his business,’’ Steelman said, adding that she “started two small businesses’’ and had “cleaned houses, flipped burgers’’ as a young woman.
Brunner tartly replied that he had “purchased that business from my father” when he took over the firm, known as Vi-Jon, which had been founded by Brunner’s grandfather. Vi-Jon specializes in personal-care products, including Germ-X.
Brunner said his business success showed that he knew the practical actions needed to cut government spending and encourage economic growth.
Steelman asked why Brunner had donated to the campaign of St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, a Democrat who she asserted was "pro-abortion, anti-gun and pro-Obama." Brunner said that Dooley was a friend who understood business and had toured Vi-Jon.
She noted that Brunner also previously had contributed money to Akin's campaign.
Akin portrayed himself as hands-on in all aspects of his life, from changing oil in his car to embracing God's vision for himself and the country.
Akin did gently jab at Steelman when moderator Connors noted that she had been endorsed by the Tea Party Express. Akin observed that there are numerous tea party groups. The audience chuckled when he added that the Tea Party Express is "based in California," a state deemed liberal by many conservatives.
Despite differences, all three pledge support
Akin asserted that Brunner focused too much on “prepared talking points” and had engaged in “bizarre’’ accusations, such as an attack in which Akin was tied to 25,000 congressional earmarks. Akin contended after the debate that it wasn’t humanly possible to be responsible for so many earmarks – generally, spending proposals for particular projects. Brunner said he stood by his stance.
Steelman, in turn, disputed moderator Connors’ assertion that she had failed to endorse fellow Republican Kenny Hulshof when he defeated her in 2008 for the Republican nomination for governor. Hulshof later lost to Democrat Jay Nixon.
Steelman’s aides waved smart phones, which featured 2008 headlines about her endorsement of Hulshof. Steelman said that the 2008 controversy had been over the timing of her endorsement.
The episode illustrated, she said, that “I have fought the (Republican) establishment from Day One of my political career."
The candidates’ confrontations overshadowed the fact that on most issues – especially government spending – they are in agreement. All three said that the best way to improve the economy and create jobs was to cut government spending, keep tax cuts in place and reduce federal regulations.
“People across this state are hurting,’’ Brunner said. “They see the American Dream drifting off course.”
Akin repeated his assertion that “we’re overtaxing the people who work and overpaying people who don’t work.”
Steelman reaffirmed her support for a federal balance budget and added, “The status quo has got to go.”
All three also agreed on something else: the importance of defeating McCaskill.
Friday night’s tension eased considerably when Brunner, Steelman and Akin each pledged support and assistance to whoever among them wins the Republican Aug. 7 primary.
McCaskill calls all 3 'one and the same'
(Start of update) McCaskill told reporters Saturday that she thought her GOP rivals had succeeded during the debate in hiding their more controversial views in favor of privatizing Social Security and Medicare, and ending the government student loan program for college students.
"Those (views) are three nonstarters with most Missourians," she said. "They were not even discussed."
Later, McCaskill called Brunner, Steelman and Akin "three of a kind, one and the same" who share the belief that "the federal government is evil." (End of update).