News Center

January 20th, 2014

Grading the Second GOP U.S. Senate Debate

The six candidates vying for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate converged on Council Bluffs Sunday evening for the second debate of the election cycle. If undecided voters were relying on this event to make their decision regarding whom to support, they are likely still undecided.

The top four candidates in the field, Sam Clovis, Joni Ernst, Mark Jacobs and Matt Whitaker, are very similar on most of the issues. That was very obvious during the 90-minute debate, which was organized by the Pottawattamie County GOP and broadcast on WHO Radio.

The field has changed slightly since the first debate, held in October at Drake University in Des Moines. David Young dropped out and entered the Third Congressional District race. Wealthy businessman Mark Jacobs has officially joined the senate campaign and quickly became a contender after announcing more than $400,000 raised in the last quarter of 2013.

I will break the analysis down based on how the top four candidates responded to each question, which will be paraphrased:

Q-Do social issues have a place at the table in this campaign?

This was an excellent question from WHO’s Gary Barrett and all the candidates should have knocked it out of the park. They didn’t. Mark Jacobs, Matt Whitaker and Joni Ernst all stated they believe social issues are important do have a place in the campaign, but then they all pivoted to the economy.

Sam Clovis was the only candidate who kept his focus on social issues.

“I think social issues not only have a place at the table, but they set the foundation and profoundly set the direction for conservatives in this county, because I believe if you don’t get that right, you’re not likely to get the rest of it right,” Clovis said.

This is a Republican primary. Social issues are the most important issues to many of the voters. Point Clovis. 


Q-On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade anniversary, what is the best way to approach the abortion issue? Would you support the states making the law on abortion and same sex marriage?

All four candidates did well here. Matt Whitaker railed against the Supreme Court and said “elected representatives at every level should fight to protect life”.

Joni Ernst mentioned efforts by the state senate to keep late term abortion doctor Leroy Carhart out of the state and said the state is a “great place to start” on fighting for these issues.

Sam Clovis mentioned senators get to vote on judges and asked why, if abortion is a private matter does Planned Parenthood get public funding.

Mark Jacobs says the battle needs to be fought on all the different fronts.

Good points by all


Q-What are you going do with 17 trillion debt placed on the younger generation?

Joni Ernst and Sam Clovis did very well here by citing several specifics. Whitaker spoke more in generalities and Mark Jacobs referred back to his time at the CFO of Reliant Energy and what he had to do to turn the company around.

They all gave good answers, but I thought Clovis and Ernst provided the best ones.

Point Clovis and Ernst


What did you think about the recent budget agreement passed by the U.S. House and Speaker Boehner’s comments denigrating the Tea Party?

Joni Ernst pointed out the bill cut into military veterans’ pensions and said she would not balance a budget “on the backs of our veterans”.

Sam Clovis said the bill shows “we lack leadership on both sides of the aisle”.

As was the case throughout the debate, Mark Jacobs did not answer the question directly and pivoted back to his experience as a successful businessman.

Matt Whitaker provided the strongest answer here, saying he would not have supported the budget and our country desperately needs tax reform. “The tax code has five times the words of the Bible and none of the good news,” Whitaker said. Good line.

No one really took Boehner to task for his comments.

Point Whitaker.


Q-What are your thoughts on President Obama’s executive actions and claims he’s doing things Congress refuses to do?

Clovis was strong again, saying the president is breaking the law and he must be held accountable.

Jacobs, again focusing on his non-political background and said we need to “send to Washington a different type of leader”.

Whitaker was strong here. “What a great opportunity you have to send a prosecutor to Washington D.C. to prosecute the case against this lawless president,” he said.

Joni Ernst said Obama does not respect the Constitution, he should not be usurping the power of Congress and stated she would stand up and defend the Constitution.

Point Clovis and Whitaker


Rebuttal period

Here, each candidate was given the opportunity to rebut something one of the other candidates said. Unfortunately, none of them did.

Joni Ernst talked about her record in the Iowa Senate. It sounded more like a closing statement than a rebuttal.

Sam Clovis said he wanted to focus on something not brought up often enough in this campaign, taking care of veterans, particularly those that served in wars long past.

Mark Jacobs said there needs to be greater focus on community colleges and skilled labor.

Matt Whitaker mentioned several things, and threw the liberty crowd a bone by supporting an audit of the Fed.

Since none of them offered an actual rebuttal, no points.


Q-Do you support raising the federal gas tax to pay for crucial infrastructure needs, and if not, what alternative for funding to you support?

Sam Clovis was very specific here, mentioning cutting the corporate tax rate to 10% and allowing for the repatriation of money. Clovis said that would equal $170 billion per year for the country, you could take half of that and put into a “transportation lock box”, and the state of Iowa would receive $700 million per year.

Mark Jacobs again did not answer the question directly. He said the single most important thing we could do is increase the rate of growth in the economy.

Matt Whitaker praised Iowa roads and talked about the federal bureaucracy being part of the problem.

Joni Ernst said raising the federal gas tax is not the way to go about it. She suggested cutting in other areas, including the Department of Education, eliminating the EPA and getting rid of the IRS. There was big applause from the crowd for Ernst’s answers.

Point Ernst


Q-What do you think of the NSA’s data collection and President Obama’s recent comments calling for some restrictions.

Sam Clovis was very strong here, saying he opposed the Patriot Act from the start and you can’t violate the Fourth Amendment. “In no case should any intelligence agency ever spy on an American,” he stated.

Mark Jacobs said we have to balance our interest of national security interest with our individual liberties.

Matt Whitaker joked about the NSA reading a text he just sent to his wife. He claimed as a former federal prosecutor, he will bring the NSA before Congress and “they won’t be spying on us after I’m elected U.S. Senator.”

Joni Ernst mentioned being a soldier and serving in the post-911 War on Terror. She said Obama’s speech was very vague and “we have to protect our individual liberties and rights”.

Point Clovis


Candidate Roundtable

This is where the candidates get to ask another candidate a question. Mark Jacobs asked Sam Clovis what his specific market-based solution to drive down healthcare costs are after repealing Obama? Clovis offered a few, including buying insurance across state lines and tort reform.

Jacobs said he agreed with some of what Clovis said, but he “misses the fundamental problem we have in healthcare”, that’s the need for price transparency, e.g. knowing what an x-ray costs before its taken, not after.

Clovis asked Jacobs what he likes about the Fair Tax. Jacobs said he supported a lot of the aspects of it, but did not offer specifics.

Joni Ernst asked Matt Whitaker: Do you believe Cap and Trade is bad for Iowa and bad for America, and would you join me in standing against it?

Whitaker simply replied, “Yes”. That earned the biggest audience laughter of the night.

Whitaker then asked Ernst which candidate in the race she admires. She said she admired all the candidates for stepping forward and being part of the campaign, mentioning all the GOP candidates would be better than Bruce Braley.

Whitaker replied, “I was going ask you who your favorite former Hawkeye tight end was.”

If Ernst had replied, “Dallas Clark”, she might have won the debate right there.

Overall, I thought they all handled this section well, so points for all four of the top candidates.


Q-What would you do next month regarding raising the debt ceiling?

Clovis, Whitaker and Ernst all said they would not support a debt ceiling increase and said we need to cut spending.

Mark Jacobs indicated he would because we “cannot threaten the full faith and credit of our government”. He added that the debt ceiling issue is “a false choice our elected leaders put us into”.

Joni Ernst offered the most specifics on this answer and handled the question the best. Point Ernst.


Q- Your thoughts on the recent Benghazi senate report

Sam Clovis mentioned he has served seven presidents. “I never thought any president would’ve left me on the battlefield. I have my doubts about this one.” Very strong stuff. Clovis called on the need for a special investigator to look into the Benghazi scandal.

Matt Whitaker said he would use his federal prosecutor skills to get to the bottom of this.

They all offered good answers, but point Clovis and Whitaker


Closing comments

In their one-minute closing comments, Sam Clovis took a thinly veiled shot toward at least one of his candidates saying this election “is about choice” and we need people who believe in the Constitution and the rule of law.

“Those of us that are willing to give up our liberties for our security, soon will have neither,” Clovis said.  Dr. Clovis should have specified who he was talking about.

Mark Jacobs said we cannot send another politician to Washington and expect different results. He used the analogy of calling a plumber when you have a plumbing problem. Jacobs said we need a fiscal problem-solver to fix the fiscal mess in Washington.

Matt Whitaker used a football analogy that I think was lost on some listeners.

Joni Ernst hammered Bruce Braley a few times in her final comments and said, “I’m running because liberals like Bruce Braley are trying to replace Iowa values with Washington values.”

Point Jacobs for the best closing statement

Overall, Sam Clovis had the best night, according to my tally. He scored on seven answers. Joni Ernst and Matt Whitaker did very well, each scoring five points. Mark Jacobs wasn’t bad, but needs to offer more specifics.

Photo by Naomi Leinen

About the Author

Kevin Hall
Kevin Hall brings almost two decades of journalistic experience to TheIowaRepublican. Starting in college as a radio broadcaster, Hall eventually became a television anchor/reporter for stations in North Carolina, Missouri, and Iowa. During the 2007 caucus cycle, Hall changed careers and joined the political realm. He was the northwest Iowa field director for Fred Thompson's presidential campaign. Hall helped Terry Branstad return to the governor's office by organizing southwest Iowa for Branstad's 2010 campaign. Hall serves as a reporter/columnist for

blog comments powered by Disqus