By Erica Irish
INDIANAPOLIS – Monday night, U.S. Senate contenders Republican Mike Braun, Libertarian Lucy Brenton and incumbent Democrat Joe Donnelly argued for their spot in Washington, D.C., in their first official debate of the election season.
The hour-long program, hosted by the non-partisan Indiana Debate Commission and moderator Anne Ryder, a veteran broadcaster and senior lecturer at the Indiana University Media School, walked voters through the many issues listed in headlines in recent days. The debate was held in Westville, Indiana.
From the tumultuous confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court on Saturday to a bleak climate change report released by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change early today, the Indiana candidates explored a variety of contentious topics from their lecterns.
But one central theme emerged from the top of the debate. Much of the discussion, it seemed, was less about delivering a cohesive solution and more about the one-on-one battle between Braun and Donnelly, a conflict that follows on weeks of head-butting on the airwaves.
Donnelly said of Braun’s stance on the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing that “Mike was for Judge Kavanaugh on the first day. If President Trump put up Bugs Bunny, Mike would’ve said he should go in the court.”
From Braun, as he introduced himself at the debate — “[Donnelly] is running a campaign of negativity because of his record. Wrong on the Iran Deal. Wrong on healthcare. Wrong on almost everything, including Judge Kavanaugh.”
Brenton, a former mortgage lender and Libertarian, said early she was not impressed.
“It’s going to be an awfully long evening if we’re just going to simply listen to them repeat their commercials back and forth to each other,” Brenton said.
A question posed by the Indiana Debate Commission, too, turned toward the divisive nature of the debate and the country itself — perhaps, the question read, at “the highest level that many people can remember.” The commission compared the political animosity to that seen during the Civil War era.
A similar question focused on partisanship asked the candidates if they were willing to break with party lines to defend their constituents, to which all candidates answered yes.
The candidates were approached by several citizens during the debate, who exchanged several topic-based questions with the trio from the crowd.
One question, asked by a student from the University of Notre Dame, requested the candidates determine if they would support the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, a ruling that decriminalized abortion practices across the nation.
While Brenton and Braun took to the extremes — Brenton, the only woman of the trio, in support of choice, and Braun, who called his stance “100 percent pro-life” — Donnelly wavered, calling himself a largely pro-life legislator who believes in exceptions in the case of rape, incest or a pregnancy that could endanger a mother’s life.
A mother — Kandice Cole of Wheatfield, Indiana — soon approached the candidates with a question of her own. She wore a red-and-white shirt emblazoned with the face of a smiling young boy, her son Eric. He died at four years old after accidentally shooting himself with a gun, left out and loaded by his babysitter.
“We have no legislation to hold irresponsible and negligent gun owners criminally liable in situations like this,” Cole said. “Would you support, and would you sponsor passing safe-storage laws, also known as child-access prevention laws?”
Brenton said gun owners should hold themselves responsible, while Donnelly said he would directly support punishment for negligent gun storage deaths. Braun said he wants to keep guns out of wrongful hands and away from children, but said he is against laws that could restrict further access to guns among law-abiding citizens.
The candidates reiterated their stances on topics such as pre-existing conditions and President Donald Trump’s interactions with the international sphere, including nuclear disarmament discussions with North Korea. They also addressed new topics, including how to combat student debt.
In her closing statement, Brenton, who largely removed herself from party lines for much of the debate, took note from President Donald Trump’s playbook when addressing voters.
“Here’s the problem, and here’s your decision,” Brenton said. “We can either drain the swamp, or we can send in another alligator.”
John Zody, chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party, said in a statement Donnelly proved his integrity and ability to lead surpassed that of Braun during the debate. The chairman’s statement did not acknowledge Brenton, though she was mentioned in the release.
“Rep. Braun lied about his support for keeping coverage for the 1.1 million Hoosiers with pre-existing conditions and neglected to mention that his own plan forces Hoosiers to pay $10,000 out of pocket for healthcare,” read the statement. “Hoosiers who watched tonight’s debate know Joe won because he showed that he’s a senator who fights for them, while Rep. Braun can’t be trusted to care about anyone but himself.”
Soon after, Josh Kelley, spokesman for Mike Braun for Indiana, issued a statement that proclaimed Braun the winner. Again, Brenton was not mentioned in the statement.
“Mike Braun outlined his record of creating American jobs and his vision to work with President Trump to create Hoosier Jobs,” Kelley’s statement said. “This November, Hoosiers have a clear choice between a liberal career politician in Sen. Donnelly and Mike Braun who has real solutions to move Indiana forward.”
A follow-up debate by the Indiana Debate Commission is scheduled for Oct. 30 in the Toby Theater at Newfields in Indianapolis. Amna Nawaz, an anchor at PBS NewsHour, will moderate.
The midterm election to determine the open U.S. Senate seat for Indiana is Nov. 6.
FOOTNOTE: Erica Irish is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.