U.S. Senate candidates Blackburn, Bredensen face off in last debate

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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 on several hot-button issues 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. What became most apparent was their differing delivery styles as they answered panel questions. 

Bredesen said he hoped for a civil debate despite all the negative advertisements. Blackburn was the first to attack by chiding Bredesen for meeting with Michael Bloomberg in New York. She repeatedly used certain trigger names, such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and other phrases designed to resonate with her supporters. 

In fact, Blackburn throughout the debate linked Bredesen to Hillary Clinton 10 times. 

Blackburn and Bredesen were first asked whether they believed the accusers of Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh who 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 the way it was in Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, adding he thought both parties did not advance the cause at all. 

Blackburn called the allegations against Kavanaugh a stunt by Democrats. But added she was certain something happened to Dr. Ford, at some point. 

Blackburn criticized Bredesen’s handling of a sexual harassment claim while governor, saying friends of Phil got promoted while the women probably lost their jobs.

Bredesen denied the assertion, calling it “just flat wrong.”  He acknowledged there was an issue, but said his administration got rid of the man right away and helped the victim.  

The candidates were asked about their views on healthcare since a recent poll surveying Tennesseans found that healthcare is what people care most about. 

The three most popular aspects of the Affordable Care Act are coverage for pre-existing conditions, 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 protecting benefits for people with 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 health care and preferred to make health care decisions with their physicians. 

The next major question regarded Social Security. 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 benefits. 

Blackburn said Social Security was the biggest concern for Tennessee seniors and people want to know why Congress hasn’t moved forward with establishing Medicare and Social Security as e trust funds to give seniors assurance that they will stay in place. She then accused Bredesen of supporting Obamacare, saying that took $700 billion out of the Medicare trust fund and took money out of seniors’ paychecks. 

Bredesen said the Social Security fund is a trust fund and he does not support reducing the benefits or raising the age. He said what could be done is what President Ronald Reagan did: raising the social security tax to fully fund the Social Security 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 hands if they were in favor of enhancing the red flag system which identifies people who have mental health issues as part of background checks for gun buyers.

Both candidates raised their hands and said yes.

Bredesen said he raised his hand in support of the enhanced background check because there needs to be a mechanism to identify people not suitable for owning weapons, noting that it should be judicially mandated, not arbitrary. 

Blackburn said she raised her hand because she believes it will help protect the Second Amendment and make citizens in public places safer. Blackburn said she has supported enhancing the NIC background check system. She also wants to harden school security and improve technology. She said she has been endorsed 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 the Senate should be taking this up. She said the Democrats would diminish second amendment rights. 

Bredesen said he absolutely believes bump stocks should be banned because of how they modify assault rifles, calling a bump stock ban 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 as a way to reduce the number of illegal immigrants coming to the U.S. The policy included family separations. But several hundred children remain separated from their parents. The candidates were asked if they believe this is an effective tool to discourage illegal immigrants from coming to the U.S.

Bredesen said no, that it amounted to child abuse and stained the country’s reputation. He hopes they can reunite the children with their parents as rapidly as possible.  He said he believes in border security, but maintains there are much better ways than building a wall, using more technology at less cost. 

Blackburn said no one wanted to see families separated, something she raised concerns about when she visited immigration facilities in 2014. She said there were problems with the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program and problems with some of the families. She said the zero-tolerance policy was working to stop drug trafficking. She believes Tennesseans want to see the wall built. 

Bredesen said the wall is a last-century idea. He suggests using more drones and sensors instead of spending an estimated $70 million to build a wall. He said there is still a need for troops and ICE agents. and he would prefer to use the money on more 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. 

The candidates answered a question about 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 auto 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 but it doesn’t address the steel and aluminum tariffs, which have a big impact on the state’s economy. The 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 are coming 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 the other candidate wins the Senate seat? Yes or no.

Blackburn said no, with a giggle, because she thinks she would do a better job. 

Bredesen said yes because he believes it’s important to accept the outcome of the election and work together to move forward.

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 by 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.

Watch the candidates for Governor of Tennessee debate at Belmont University on News 2 Friday at 7 p.m.

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