The two U.S. Senate candidates for Tennessee faced each other on stage for their final live debate before Election Day at the Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville Wednesday evening.
Congressman Marsha Blackburn and former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen answered questions regarding several hot-button issues of today, including guns, healthcare, Social Security, immigration and border security, trade tariffs and sexual assault.
Neither candidate was born in Tennessee, however, both have called the Volunteer State home for several decades and have served in public office for Tennesseans.
That is where their on-paper similarities end.
More similarities arose during the debate Wednesday night, with each candidate agreeing on topics such as current Senator Bob Corker’s work during his term (both candidates gave him a grade A), trade tariffs (neither candidate supports the trade tariffs) and supporting a red-flag enhancement for gun buying background checks, but what became most apparent was their differing delivery styles for answering panel questions.
Bredesen said he hoped for a civil debate despite all the negative advertisements. Blackburn was the first to attack by chiding Bredesen by accusing him a trip to New York and continued to use certain trigger words and phrases that could theoretically resonate with her supporters.
In fact, Blackburn throughout the debate linked Bredesen to Hillary Clinton 10 times.
Blackburn and Bredesen were first asked about whether they believed the accusers of Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh that alleged he sexually assaulted them.
Bredesen said he didn’t think those allegations rose to the level of disqualification, saying he believed the subject of sexual harassment should not be weaponized in a way that it was in Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, adding he thought both parties did not advance the cause at all.
Blackburn said, after shedding criticism on Bredesen’s administration while governor for a sexual assault issue and calling the allegations against Kavanaugh was a stunt by the Democrats, that she was certain something happened to Dr. Ford, at some point in her life.
The candidates were asked about their views on healthcare, since a recent poll surveying Tennesseans found that was what they most cared about.
The three most popular aspects of the Affordable Care Act are coverage for pre-existing condition, children staying on parents’ insurance until age 26 and the no lifetime cap on healthcare expenses. Blackburn and Bredesen were asked if they would support these provisions to become part of a future overhaul of the Affordable Care Act.
Bredesen said yes, he would support that although he was not an initial supporter of the Affordable Care Act when it came out, but once it became the law of the land, it was an obligation to move forward and support it. He said one of the most important provisions was the protections of pre-existing conditions.
Blackburn said every plan she has voted on had that provision and then called Hillary Clinton “the mother of government-run healthcare.” Blackburn added that Tennesseans did not want government-controlled healthcare and to make healthcare decisions with their physicians.
The next major question regarded Social Security. The projections from the social security board of trustees show the trust fund will be depleted by 2034. The candidates were asked if they would support raising the retirement age over the current cap of age 67 to maintain full benefit.
Blackburn said Social Security was the biggest concern for Tennessean seniors and why Congress hasn’t moved forward with establishing Medicare and Social Security as the trust funds to give seniors assurance that they will stay in place. She then accused Bredesen of supporting Obamacare that took $700 billion out of the the Medicare trust fund, taking money out of seniors’ paychecks.
Bredesen said the social security fund is a trust fund and that while he does not support reducing the benefits such as raising the age, but thought that what could be done is what President Ronald Reagan did by raising the social security tax fully fund the trust fund.
The two candidates argued in rebuttals about the social security trust fund and what it was, Blackburn calling it “an I.O.U” and Bredesen insisting it was a trust fund.
The next major question involved gun control and mental health. The candidates were asked to raise their hand if they were in favor of enhancing he red flag system which identifies people with or who have suspicion of mental health issues as part of the background checks for gun buyers.
Both candidates raised their hands.
Bredesen said he raised his hand in support of the enhanced background check because there needed to be a mechanism to identify people not suitable for owning weapons, noting that it should be judicially mandated, not arbitrarily.
Blackburn said she raised her hand because they can protect the Second Amendment and citizens in public places, noting that she has supported enhancing the NIC background check system and to harden schools and improve technology. She also said she was supported by the National Rifle Association and the Fraternal Order of Police.
When asked about banning military assault-style weapons or bump stock modifications of firearms, Blackburn said the House has already done that and that the Senate should be taking this up. She said the Democrats would diminish second amendment rights.
Bredesen said he absolutely believed bump stocks should be banned because of how they modify assault rifles, calling it a reasonable restriction for protecting second amendment rights. He said he supports the Second Amendment and is a gun owner himself.
The candidates were asked about immigration and border control.
President Donald Trump implemented a zero-tolerance policy for coder security as a way to reduce the number of illegal immigrants coming to the U.S. The policy included family separations. Several hundred children remain separated from their parents. The candidates were asked if they believed this was an effective tool to discourage illegal immigrants coming to the U.S.
Bredesen said no, that it amounted to child abuse and stained the country’s reputation and that he hopes they can reunite the children with the parents as rapidly as possible. He said he believed in border security, but there are much better way than building a wall, with more technology at less cost.
Blackburn said no one wanted to see families separated, something she raised issue with when she visited these facilities in 2014. She said there were problems with the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program and the problems with some of the families. She said the zero-tolerance policy was working with stopping drug trafficking. She said Tennesseans want to see the wall built.
Bredesen said the wall is last century. There are now drones and sensors and that there is still a need for troops and ICE and would spend the estimated cost to build the wall, $70 billion, on resources like that and modern strategies.
When asked if Blackburn would spend the $70 billion to build the wall, she simply said, “Walls work. Just ask Israel.” She added that open borders bring in drug trafficking, sex trafficking and illegal immigrants.
One of the other major questions the candidates answered regarded President Trump’s new NAFTA plan, the USMCA Trade Deal, which opens the Canadian milk market to U.S. farmers and calls for more car parts made in North America. It is designed to help Tennessee dairy farmers and automotive workers. The candidates were asked if they would support this and if it would help alleviate the harm from the trade tariffs.
Bredesen said he supported it and how it is re-branded NAFTA but it doesn’t address the steel and aluminum tariffs, which are vastly more influential on the state’s economy. These tariffs are threatening those industries, especially automotive. He called the trade tariffs a job-killer of Tennessee businesses.
Blackburn affirmed she was not a fan of tariffs. In talking with farmers, she said they want free trade, not aid. She said she’s spent a lot of time advocating for farmers and manufacturers. She said the dairy farmers like the new USMCA deal. She said that China has had a trade war with the U.S. for decades, but she was pleased they have been brought to the table for talks.
The final question of the evening was about the candidates’ opinion of their opponent, should they win. Would Tennessee be in good hands if their opponent wins the Senate seat? Yes or no.
Blackburn said, with a giggle, she thinks it would be in better hands with herself.
Bredesen said yes, in accepting the outcomes of elections.
In closing, both candidates said they would like to represent Tennessee. Bredesen said he’d be proud to represent Tennessee again, and Blackburn said she would make sure things got done.
The U.S. Senate candidate debate took place at the Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville.
The flags on set were positioned the University of Tennessee’s ROTC. The correct positioning of the flag is to have the American flag over the right shoulder of the speaker.