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.