Idaho Press Tribune - Senate Candidates Debate
Republican Jim Risch and Democrat Larry LaRocco staked out very different territory Tuesday night in a U.S. Senate race debate that covered health care reform, the issue of a new economic stimulus package and who is best equipped to help solve the nation's domestic challenges.
At times, the exchanges between Risch, Idaho's lieutenant governor, and LaRocco, the last Idaho Democrat elected to Congress, got testy as they traded attacks that have defined each of their campaigns. LaRocco accused Risch of benefiting from a tax cut he fought for as temporary governor in 2006, while Risch chided LaRocco as a classic "tax and spend liberal."
"We have very different political philosophies," Risch said in closing, referring to LaRocco. "He's a liberal Democrat. He's been a (Washington) D.C. lobbyist. I delivered tax decreases as governor. I've done change before, and this country needs an overhaul."
In his closing, LaRocco linked Risch to what the Democrat called the failed Republican policies of the last eight years.
"If you're going to have the same policies as this administration we'll keep heading in the wrong direction," LaRocco said during the live, televised debate.
The frontrunners were joined on stage by two Independent candidates, Rex Rammell, a veterinarian and former elk rancher from eastern Idaho, and a Gem County organic farmer who has changed his name to Pro-Life.
The candidates are competing for the Senate seat now held by three-term Republican Larry Craig, who is resigning at the end of his term in January. Craig announced he would not run again last fall, weeks after his arrest in a Minneapolis airport gay sex sting.
Absent from the stage at Northwest Nazarene University, in Nampa, was Libertarian candidate Kent Marmon, who did not meet fundraising criteria for taking part in the debate.
The candidates covered a range of issues, from reforming health care to fixing the ailing economy to free trade agreements.
Risch emphasized his experience as a state lawmaker and two-term lieutenant governor and his seven-month stint as Idaho governor after former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne was tapped to be Interior secretary. Risch said he is best prepared to represent Idaho and deal with the tough tasks awaiting the next batch of congressional leaders.
Several times he referred to his relationship with Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, calling him "Mike" and a confidant on issues.
Risch said he's not ready to commit to supporting another economic stimulus package now being discussed as a way to revive the economy, saying he's concerned about the federal spending already approved to prop up the financial markets.
But LaRocco said he supports an economic shot in the arm, providing it's based on funding infrastructure projects designed to help middle class workers.
"Working families in this state are hurting," said LaRocco, underscoring his efforts throughout his campaign to connect with Idaho's middle class voters. "I think we should be doing some nation building right here in the U.S. Let's put real people to work."
When quizzed on health care reform, LaRocco said he favors policies that emphasize prevention, portability and tax deductions. Risch said he wants to focus on ways to bring down costs, such as prevention, eliminating unnecessary procedures and converting to electronic records.
The debate took a nasty turn when LaRocco revisited allegations that Risch saved thousands of dollars after the Legislature approved a $200 million property tax cut in 2006. During his stint as governor, Risch called a special session and won support for a plan to cut property taxes marked for schools. At the same time, lawmakers raised the state sales tax by one penny, to 6 percent, for a net tax cut of about $30 million.
Risch has touted the tax cut in campaign ads, while LaRocco says it's nothing more than shifting the tax burden. LaRocco claimed the tax cut helped Risch save $53,000 and that he's concerned more about helping wealthy voters than struggling ones.
"That's a lie," Risch said Tuesday. "If I got $53,000 out of that bill, I'll drop out of this race ... and you should too if" you're proven wrong.
Throughout the debate, Rammell claimed he is the true conservative in the contest. He said abortion doctors should be charged with murder and suggested he is the only candidate committed to reducing federal spending and the size of the federal government.
"I did not leave the Republican party, the party left me," Rammell said.
Pro-Life also staked out conservative political real estate throughout the night. He chastised politicians for what he termed turning their back on God, said abortion is no different than premeditated murder and said he would eliminate all forms of public education. Twice he got choked up when talking about his beliefs.
"We have turned our back on God. I would speak up for God and the Constitution," he said. "We need to bring faith back into our lives."
The debate was sponsored by KTVB-TV, the Idaho Press Tribune and the Idaho Business Review.