I attended Iowa Public Television’s Republican Primary U.S. Senate debate on Thursday night. While there have been plenty of local forums and debates throughout the campaign, this was the first time the candidates were under the bright lights. As always, IPTV does a fantastic job of staging a professional debate, if there was one area that was lacking, it was the questions that were asked of the candidates and the lack of good follow-ups.
I was excited as my wife and I drove to the IPTV studios in Johnston to watch the debate with the live audience. I’ve never watched an IPTV debate live and in person before. I’ve watched in the control room with the media for the 2010 Republican gubernatorial debate. I’ve stood outside in my blue and orange Steve Forbes poncho in 1999, but I’ve never actually been in the audience.
What struck me as we turned into the studio was the lack of excitement. There were ample amounts of Whitaker and Jacobs yard signed stuck in the ground, none for Ernst or Clovis, but there were no people outside supporting their candidate like there were at the aforementioned mentioned debates.
Inside wasn’t that much different either. The studio audience was sparse. Plenty of recognizable faces, but where were the people who are so excited about their candidate in the race that they would want to be there to cheer them on? I understand that with HD TV’s and devices that allow you to pause the debate for a bathroom break or to pay the pizza delivery guy have changed things, but I would have thought each candidate’s loyal supporters would have been there in full force.
My Overall Take:
Imagine you don’t know any of the candidates and know absolutely nothing about them personally. Now answer the question of who do you think the frontrunners in the race are after watching last night’s debate. In my opinion, three candidates stood out, Matt Whitaker, Mark Jacobs, and Sam Clovis.
I’ll delve into what I liked about their performances in a bit, but those three candidates answered questions with thoughtful answers. They also did so with some personality and style.
This was a good debate for all three, but especially for Whitaker and Clovis who need to use the few televised debates to get better known to voters across the state. Jacobs was also helped by the debate. For him, it helped confirm that he would be a formidable candidate in the general election against Congressman Bruce Braley. As far as U.S. Senate candidates go, Jacobs comes from central casting. That will turn off some voters, but to others, he looks and sounds the part. It’s easy to imagine him doing the job.
I was impressed with Whitaker’s debate performance. Whitaker was the only candidate on the stage that attempted to control the debate by interjecting whenever he saw fit. This allowed him to debate on his own terms and to address the questions he wanted to answer, not just the questions that he was asked directly. Whitaker took charge and was impressive throughout the evening. Whitaker doesn’t offer as detailed answers as Clovis and Jacobs, but the way he approached the debate covered that up pretty well.
If the IPTV debate taught us anything about Whitaker, it’s that he’s a competitor. When lined up on stage with his opponents, he takes his game to an entirely different level. It makes me wonder how the race would be different if his competitive juices were flowing everyday of the campaign and not just when the lights are on. I’ll tell you this, if the candidates all lived in a dormitory and were forced to get up and head down to the starting line everyday to start the day’s campaign activities, I have no doubt that Whitaker would blow his competition away.
Best Answer: Gay Marriage
I thought Whitaker’s best answer to a question came when he was asked about the impact gay marriage has had on Iowa in the five years that it has been legal. Whitaker pointed out that it has undermined people’s religious liberties. It was the perfect answer.
Worst Answer: Term limits.
A lot of voters are going to agree with Whitaker on the need for term limits, but I thought his arguments for why they are needed was weak, especially with what other candidates said who do not support term limits.
Jacobs turned in a nice debate performance. He was constantly able to intertwine his private sector business experience into his answers, thus using it as the justification for why he believes he is the best candidate in the race. I also appreciate Jacobs’ willingness to differ from his opponents on issues. He did this on Thursday night when answering questions on the farm bill and Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget. Jacobs said that he would have supported both even though he disagrees with some of the things each bill contains.
Now, some activists are not going to like those answers, but they are unlikely to support Jacobs anyway. Furthermore, his answers provide a glimpse of how he would conduct himself as a senator. It’s clear that Jacobs isn’t going to be a firebrand if elected, but he’s going to be a consensus builder who is willing to take incremental steps to accomplish his goals.
In many ways the approach Jacobs is laying out is identical to the approach Congressman Tom Latham has used in his 20 years in Congress. Latham, by the way, was the preferred U.S. Senate candidate for most Republicans, but opted not to run for the open U.S. Senate seat and later announced his retirement from Congress.
Best Answer: Term Limits
The best answer of the night for Jacobs came on the question about term limits. Unlike Clovis, Ernst, and Whitaker, Jacobs finds term limits unnecessary because they limit choices of the voters. He also said that term limits would weaken Iowa’s influence in the U.S. Senate because senators from large coastal states would likely be the committee chairs. Great point.
Worst Answer: Gay Marriage Question
Jacobs did a good job of communicating his position on gay marriage, stating clearly that marriage is between one man and one woman, but he punted on the second part of the question that asked how it has impacted Iowa. Jacobs said he would leave it for others to deicide how gay marriage has impacted Iowans. That’s a bad answer because it makes it seem as though he is uncomfortable speaking about this issue.
If we know one thing about Sam Clovis, it’s that he loves candidate debates and forums. Clovis is never short on substance, and that held true once again last night. The easy going Clovis even got a little testy at one point in the debate when Dean Borg, the debates moderator, called him a radio talk show host. Clovis pointed out that while he has hosted an hour-long radio show in Sioux City for a year or two, he is actually a retired fighter pilot who is now a college professor of economics.
There is no doubt that Clovis has thought out issue after issue. It doesn’t matter if it’s Obamacare, immigration, taxes, for foreign policy, Clovis is going to deliver a well thought out answer. Where Clovis struggles is when it comes to making the case for why he should be the Republican nominee. Sadly, modern elections are not typically won based on a candidate’s knowledge and likeability. Clovis has constantly performed well in these types of settings, but he needs to answer the question that he’s never asked directly – why are you the best candidate for Republicans to nomination in the U.S. Senate race.
Best Answer: Fair Tax
It’s easy to say that you think taxes should be flatter, simpler, and fairer. Clovis, a supporter of the Fair Tax, used the debate as an opportunity to communicate that he supports fundamental tax reform. You can never go wrong advocating for major tax reform in a Republican primary.
Worst Answer: Insurance Subsidy
Clovis was asked a poorly worded question by Des Moines Register columnist Kathie Obradovich about who would oversee insurance claims if people were allowed to purchase insurance plans from other states. Clovis said that the market would take care of it. Well, not really. If Craig from Iowa has a problem with his insurance company from New Mexico bogusly denying claims, where does he go to file a grievance? Obradovich asked if the federal government should be in charge. Clovis’s answer didn’t make any sense.
Thursday night’s IPTV debate wasn’t one of State Senator Joni Ernst’s best performances. Ernst stood out on the debate stage with her red jacket, but unfortunately her answers to the questions did not.
In the early portion of the debate, Ernst spent an inordinate amount of time agreeing with the answers of her competitors. Ernst agreed with answers from Jacobs, Clovis, Whitaker, and even Scott Schaben. There is nothing necessarily wrong with agreeing with an answer of your opponent, I mean they are all Republicans, but it made her come of as weak.
If anyone needed a strong debate performance, it was Ernst. There is no doubt that her campaign currently has some momentum, but she needed to validate her standing in the race by delivering a solid debate performance. Quite honestly, Ernst needs to use debates like the one last night to convey that the race is a two-person contest between her and Jacobs. That’s already a difficult task with Clovis and Whitaker on the stage, but it’s critically important to Ernst’s candidacy.
Like Clovis and Whitaker, Ernst’s campaign does not have the money compete with Jacobs’s ad campaign. That means she has to preform well in debate performances like these. The most notable moment from Ernst last night was when she asked Radio Iowa reporter Kay Henderson is she had ever castrated a pig. Was it funny? Sure. But when you don’t really shine in any other moments in the debate, it adds to the perception that you are not a serious candidate.
Best Answer: Gas tax.
It’s hard to believe that Ernst was never asked about her previous support of the state gas tax when the topic was discussed for five minutes in last night’s debate. Ernst actually has voted in favor of a gas tax increase in Iowa, but you would never know it because she wisely filibustered and changed the subject when the question came to her.
Worst Answer: Medical marijuana
Ernst voted in favor of legalizing cannabis oil in Iowa on Thursday afternoon. Later that night, she was asked if the federal government should relax its regulation of marijuana laws. Ernst said it was a state’s issue. Obviously she doesn’t realize that that some states, including Iowa if this legislation is signed into law, will be in conflict with federal law. She didn’t seem to understand the question. As a Senator, she would be in a position to remedy that conflict, but chose instead to avoid taking on the issue directly.
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