President Barack Obama’s policies, national and local economic issues and women’s rights sparked clashes Tuesday night as Senate candidates debated in five states with just a month left before Election Day.
The debates were part of races both parties are counting on for victories — in Virginia for Democrats and in West Virginia for Republicans — and races where both parties are hoping to win a seat from the other, Democrats from Republicans in Georgia, and Republicans from Democrats in North Carolina.
The race in Colorado figures to be among those that will decide whether the GOP will gain the six seats overall it needs to take control of the Senate in the next Congress.
Highlights from the debates:
VIRGINIA: IT’S THE ECONOMY
In his second debate with Republican challenger Ed Gillespie, Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner touted his record of promoting economic development while trying to counter criticism that’s he marches in lockstep with President Barack Obama.
“Everything in my career has been about creating jobs,” said Warner, a former Virginia governor and cell phone entrepreneur.
Warner said he was proud of his work to promote economic development and job growth in distressed parts of the state, as well as his support to spread broadband Internet access.
Gillespie said Warner’s voting record hasn’t matched his rhetoric and criticized the incumbent for supporting Obama policies that he said have hurt Virginia’s economy.
“Sen. Warner voted for the failed stimulus: $1 trillion, wasted money. He voted for the excessive regulations in the Dodd-Frank bill that are making it hard for small businesses to get capital and get loans. He voted for $7 trillion in new debt and nearly $1 trillion in tax increases,” Gillespie said. “And, of course, last but not least, he voted for the Affordable Care Act.”
Gillespie said he would work to repeal the president’s health care law; Warner said he would work to improve it.
WEST VIRGINIA: COAL AND ENERGY POLICY
In the only debate in this year’s race for an open Senate seat in West Virginia, GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito stuck with her campaign theme of tying Democrat Natalie Tennant to Obama’s energy policies.
The debate in Charleston focused on the coal industry, and the president is wildly unpopular in the state among those who view his administration as hostile to fossil fuels.
“Every single mining job that’s lost is attributable to the policies of President Obama (and) Harry Reid, who is supporting my opponent’s election,” said Capito, referring to the Senate’s majority leader. Throughout the debate, Capito constantly pointed out Tennant’s support of Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
Tennant is a two-term secretary of state, and she pointed to the support she’s received from the United Mine Workers of America and called her candidacy “pro-coal miner.” She criticized Capito’s multiple votes for the House Republican budget, which calls for cuts to domestic programs.
“They trust me that I’ll save their jobs,” Tennant said of the miners’ union.
Both candidates said they oppose federal limits on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, which Obama supports.
Tennant said she doesn’t disagree with scientists about climate change, which Obama’s energy policies aim to curb. Capito said she “doesn’t necessarily think the climate is changing,” but told reporters afterward that she misspoke and does think people contribute to climate change.
Capito and Tennant are vying to replace Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who is retiring.
NORTH CAROLINA: OBAMA POLICIES VS. STATE CONSERVATIVE TURN
The second debate between Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis in North Carolina centered on whether voters should think more about Obama or the conservative direction taken by the state’s government during Tillis’ time as state House speaker.
Tillis said the president’s policies — “every single one of them” — are effectively up for a referendum.
“If you want the same failed policies of President Obama, you vote for Kay Hagan. If you think it’s time to change the direction of this country and make it great again, I hope you’ll vote for Thom Tillis,” the Republican said.
Tillis repeated 10 times that Hagan’s record shows she backs positions favored by Obama 96 percent of the time. The figure comes from recorded roll-call votes on measures on which the president took a public position.
Hagan focused repeatedly on the sharply conservative direction of the state Legislature, which Tillis has helped lead after Republicans won veto-proof majorities two years ago. She said GOP lawmakers have rejected a federally funded Medicaid expansion that would provide more people with health coverage, made cuts to education funding and reduced state taxes in ways that disproportionately benefit wealthier families.
“He has campaigned on an agenda to take that destructive agenda to Washington,” Hagan said. “Speaker Tillis feels that those who have the most, they should get the most help.”
COLORADO: A FOCUS ON WOMEN’S RIGHTS
Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall and his challenger, GOP Rep. Cory Gardner, clashed again over women’s rights and reproductive issues.
In a state where female voters have helped Democrats win every top-of-the-ticket election in the past decade, Udall has tried to emphasize Gardner’s support for so-called personhood measures that would give fertilized eggs the same rights as people — outlawing all forms of abortion and possibly some forms of birth control.
“Rep. Gardner has a long history of trying to limit women’s reproductive rights,” Udall said.
Gardner has disowned a personhood measure that’s on the Colorado ballot this year, saying he does not want to limit contraception. But he is still the co-sponsor of a similar law in the House. He said he has remained a sponsor as “simply a statement that I support life.” He said he wasn’t sure if he would sponsor a similar measure were he elected to the Senate.
He also laughed off Udall’s repeated jabs on women’s rights, recalling that when his wife saw the first television ad accusing him of trying to limit birth control, she said, “Didn’t you used to pick up my prescription?”
The debate at The Denver Post was the second of three the candidates will have this week.
GEORGIA: COMPETING CHARGES OF FALSE HOPE
Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue accused each other of offering false hope to voters during a rowdy debate in which they traded charges of not being able to advance anything if elected to Georgia’s open Senate seat.
Also at the debate was Libertarian Amanda Swafford, who said neither Nunn nor Perdue offers voters anything new.
Perdue, the former chief executive of Dollar General, dismissed Nunn’s call for bipartisanship as unrealistic. She is the daughter of former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, a moderate who represented Georgia in Congress for years.
“My Democratic opponent was hand-picked by President Obama. Do you think she is going to go against his policies?” Perdue said.
Nunn, chief executive of the volunteer organization Points of Light, argued that Perdue “does not have the leadership necessary” to be effective in Washington, and cited his support for last year’s GOP-led government shutdown.
“We need principled efforts and ideals, but we also need to send people to Washington that are not about attacking and paralyzing and polarizing our government,” she said.
Associated Press writers Alan Suderman in McLean, Virginia; Jonathan Mattise in Charleston, West Virginia; Gary Robertson in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina; Nicholas Riccardi in Denver; and Christina A. Cassidy in Perry, Georgia, contributed to this report.