Senator Maria Cantwell debates Susan Hutchison in Parkland
Senator Maria Cantwell debates Susan Hutchison in Parkland (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Just before half past the noon hour yes­ter­day in Park­land, Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell and her Repub­li­can chal­lenger Susan Hutchi­son walked onstage at Pacif­ic Luther­an Uni­ver­si­ty’s Karen Hille Phillips Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter for what was billed as the first U.S. Sen­ate debate in Wash­ing­ton of the 2018 cycle.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the event turned out to be more like a cable news pun­dit pan­el gone awry than a debate between two cred­i­ble con­tenders for high office.

That’s large­ly because Hutchi­son showed up not as a seri­ous can­di­date pre­pared to thought­ful­ly dis­cuss the issues, but as a hyper­par­ti­san Repub­li­can oper­a­tive traf­fick­ing in half-truths and out­right fab­ri­ca­tions. Per­haps I should­n’t have been sur­prised by this, since Hutchi­son has spent the last few years as Chair of the Wash­ing­ton State Repub­li­can Par­ty, but it was dis­ap­point­ing nonetheless.

Sen­a­tor Cantwell won her past two reelec­tion cam­paigns with ease, hand­i­ly dis­patch­ing insur­ance exec­u­tive Mike McGav­ick in 2006 and State Sen­a­tor Michael Baum­gart­ner in 2012. What’s more, Repub­li­cans have not won a U.S. Sen­ate race in Wash­ing­ton since 1994, the last time Slade Gor­ton was elected.

Per­haps it was out of a sense of futil­i­ty, then, that the Repub­li­can Par­ty neglect­ed to recruit its own pre­ferred chal­lenger to Cantwell until the last minute of Fil­ing Week, when Hutchi­son sud­den­ly put her name into the hat and began mak­ing sil­ly, inane state­ments about the Sen­a­tor’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the state and vot­ing record.

Lack­ing time to put togeth­er a prop­er cam­paign or map out a strat­e­gy for appeal­ing to a wider swath of Wash­ing­to­ni­ans than the ones she was tasked with orga­niz­ing as state par­ty chair, Hutchi­son has con­tent­ed her­self with throw­ing red meat to her base at every pos­si­ble oppor­tu­ni­ty. Today’s debate was no exception.

She con­tin­u­al­ly praised Don­ald Trump and den­i­grat­ed the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, telling the polite but skep­ti­cal crowd of most­ly stu­dents that the failed busi­ness mogul deserves every­one’s sup­port — or at least the ben­e­fit of doubt.

At one point, try­ing to defend how Trump inter­acts with oth­er peo­ple (includ­ing heads of state), she said: “I can’t explain a lot about the Art of the Deal; I haven’t read the book”. That drew chuck­les and snick­ers from some in the audience.

Giv­en how much of a fan Hutchi­son is of Trump, it’s sur­pris­ing that she has­n’t yet read The Art of the Deal. Per­haps that does­n’t mat­ter, since it’s a work of fic­tion. (Although it has his name on it, Trump did not actu­al­ly write the book. The man who did write it has described Trump as a sociopath and a com­pul­sive liar.)

At anoth­er point, Hutchi­son false­ly assert­ed that George Soros was pay­ing pro­test­ers to cause a ruckus in our nation’s cap­i­tal in oppo­si­tion to Trump’s nom­i­na­tion of Brett Kavanaugh. This is a right wing lie that has been debunked by fact check­ers, but that did­n’t stop Hutchi­son from repeat­ing it onstage.

Cantwell, for her part, sought to keep her answers focused on pol­i­cy, declin­ing many oppor­tu­ni­ties to respond to Hutchison’s barbs and engage in fur­ther fin­ger point­ing. She tout­ed her work secur­ing more fed­er­al resources for tack­ling wild­fires, explained why we have to safe­guard the Patient Pro­tec­tion Act so that mil­lions of Wash­ing­to­ni­ans don’t lose their health­care, empha­sized that she’ll work with any­body to pro­tect DREAM­ers, and vowed to fight any right wing pro­pos­al float­ed by Paul Ryan’s suc­ces­sors to cut Social Secu­ri­ty and Medicare.

Cantwell did, how­ev­er, take a few swipes at Hutchi­son dur­ing the hour­long exchange. In her open­ing, she told the audi­ence Wash­ing­ton did­n’t need a rub­ber stamp for Don­ald Trump. A lit­tle lat­er, respond­ing to a ques­tion from the mod­er­a­tors, she described the Repub­li­can Par­ty as “bank­rupt of good ideas”.

The for­mat of the debate was decent, but could have been better.

The hour­long exchange had three mod­er­a­tors: Q13’s Bran­di Kruse, KIRO 7’s Essex Porter, and KOMO 3’s Mary Nam. The trio did a very good job shar­ing the respon­si­bil­i­ties, but one mod­er­a­tor would have been sufficient.

My biggest com­plaint, though, is that the mod­er­a­tors failed to ask a ques­tion about the cli­mate cri­sis, which is the gravest issue that our world cur­rent­ly faces.

(On the very same day the debate took place, the UN’s Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change told the world com­mu­ni­ty in its lat­est report that there’s still an oppor­tu­ni­ty to halt irre­versible cli­mate dam­age, but only for a short time.)

Instead, they made the cli­mate cri­sis and envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion one of three pos­si­ble top­ic choic­es in an audi­ence poll, along with gun safe­ty and sub­stance abuse. All three issues mer­it­ed at least one ques­tion to the can­di­dates and should not have been pit­ted against each oth­er in a poll.

The win­ner of the poll was gun safe­ty, so the final few min­utes were devot­ed to a dis­cus­sion of that top­ic, and that por­tion of the exchange was eas­i­ly the most sub­stan­tive and inter­est­ing. The can­di­dates staked out sharply dif­fer­ent posi­tions, with Cantwell endors­ing Ini­tia­tive 1639 and Hutchi­son con­demn­ing it.

Health­care, trade pol­i­cy, the U.S. mis­sion in Afghanistan, and immi­gra­tion reform are impor­tant top­ics, and I do not ques­tion their inclu­sion in a U.S. Sen­ate debate.

But I can­not under­stand why some issues, par­tic­u­lar­ly the cli­mate cri­sis, always seem to either get rel­e­gat­ed to the end, or worse, go unad­dressed entirely.

I’d like to see cli­mate be the first top­ic that gets asked about next time, and I’d also like fol­low-up ques­tions to be asked to fur­ther flesh out the can­di­dates’ posi­tions. I don’t just want to know whether they believe in cli­mate sci­ence. I want to know what poli­cies they think should be adopt­ed to facil­i­tate a tran­si­tion away not just from dirty ener­gy, but our unsus­tain­able use it up and throw it out culture.

How we care for our com­mon home (the Earth) is a much more impor­tant and press­ing issue than bor­der secu­ri­ty. The right wing is of course obsessed with talk­ing about the bor­der (par­tic­u­lar­ly the U.S.-Mexico bor­der) but that hard­ly means orga­niz­ers of debates such as this need to pri­or­i­tize the topic.

With that said, the mod­er­a­tors deserve cred­it for ask­ing fol­low-ups when they felt a can­di­date had­n’t actu­al­ly answered a ques­tion, steer­ing clear of eye-rolling gim­micks (like allow­ing the can­di­dates to ask each oth­er a ques­tion), and con­serv­ing time for more ques­tions by dis­pens­ing with clos­ing statements.

It was also good that the can­di­dates were not restrict­ed to an absurd­ly short amount of time to answer a ques­tion, like fif­teen sec­onds or thir­ty seconds.

The audi­ence poll was not a bad idea, but the poll should have been struc­tured so that view­ers could sug­gest pos­si­ble top­ics as opposed to hav­ing three impor­tant pre­s­e­lect­ed top­ics pit­ted against each oth­er. Since there were mul­ti­ple mod­er­a­tors run­ning the show, the band­width exist­ed to sort through sub­mis­sions on stage.

After the debate was over, Hutchi­son went up to the media room to spew more Repub­li­can talk­ing points and osten­si­bly answer reporters’ ques­tions. Cantwell’s cam­paign opt­ed to send sur­ro­gates to tout her record and accom­plish­ments. Repub­li­cans prompt­ly sneered that Cantwell was “nowhere to be found”, but she was actu­al­ly down­stairs talk­ing with Pacif­ic Luther­an Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents.

At the time I left the build­ing, Cantwell and her cam­paign team were still there and the Sen­a­tor was still talk­ing with stu­dents, where­as Hutchi­son and most of her entourage appeared to be gone. Cantwell could and should have stopped by the media room her­self fol­low­ing the debate, but just because she did­n’t hard­ly val­i­dates the Repub­li­cans’ ridicu­lous and laugh­ably false nar­ra­tive about her.

The Repub­li­cans may not like it, but this elec­tion cycle has been char­ac­ter­ized by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty going on offense and expand­ing the num­ber of places where it cred­i­bly com­petes. No Demo­c­ra­t­ic fed­er­al or leg­isla­tive incum­bents appear to be in any real dan­ger this year, espe­cial­ly not Sen­a­tor Cantwell, who held a six­teen point lead over Hutchi­son back in the spring accord­ing to our research polling.

Mean­while, the Repub­li­cans are on defense in three of the four con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts they hold in the state, as well as a slew of leg­isla­tive dis­tricts in both west­ern and east­ern Wash­ing­ton. Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates per­formed well in the August Top Two elec­tion, and aim to do even bet­ter in November.

Still sound­ing like the heav­i­ly invest­ed Repub­li­can state chair she once was, Hutchi­son dis­missed Demo­c­ra­t­ic prospects in the midterms just pri­or to declar­ing that she’d tak­en enough ques­tions, thank you very much.

“There will be no blue wave in Novem­ber,” Hutchi­son declared.

We’ll see about that, Susan.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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