Sen. Maria Cantwell, Susan Hutchison Draw Sharp, Partisan Contrasts in First Debate


In their first public clash before November’s midterm election, incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and her Republican challenger Susan Hutchison drew sharp contrasts over health care, immigration, trade and firearms during an hourlong debate heavy on partisanship but light on revelation.

Hutchison at one point pivoted from a question on foreign theft of intellectual property to reference an oft-used, but unproven Republican rallying cry.

“When I hear Senator Cantwell speak about hacking, I can’t help but think about how the Russians and Chinese were able to hack into Hillary Clinton’s emails,” she said.

She also likened vocal protesters at the recent Senate confirmation hearings on Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court to an intolerant “mob” professionally paid by liberal megadonor George Soros, blamed Democrats for using Kavanaugh’s accuser as a political pawn, and said the opposing party “besmirched a man who had an impeccable record of jurisprudence.”

Cantwell, who touted herself as an effective collaborator willing to work across aisles as necessary, laid bare the differences between where she and her challenger stood on the nation’s political rift of the day — Kavanaugh’s nomination — by expressing support for his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

“I believe Dr. Ford, and I believe that it’s very important to continue to believe the people who have corroborating evidence in these kinds of cases,” she said.

During her opening remarks at the debate at Pacific Lutheran University near Tacoma, Hutchison tried to brand Cantwell as a career politician who has lost touch with Washington’s working class, contending the senator is a virtual no-show in the state.

The three-term incumbent countered that Hutchison was a rubber stamp for Donald Trump. Cantwell said she’s fought to expand the GI bill, helped Boeing overcome Airbus to win the multibillion-dollar federal tanker contract, and voted against her party in the bailout of Wall Street.

Hutchison, the former Republican Party of Washington chairman, spoke favorably of Trump and his agenda, championing his tax plan as an economy boost that has added millions of jobs and led to “historic unemployment.” She supported the president’s work to renegotiate NAFTA and other trade agreements, saying such pacts have left Washington farmers at a disadvantage in the world’s trade market.

“Cherry farmers are concerned about the uneven playing field and are so pleased that President Trump is fighting for them,” Hutchison said, noting she has won the Washington Farm Bureau’s endorsement. “ ... Now the president is going after the Big Cheese — China — to help fix the trade disparity.”

Cantwell criticized Trump’s trade tariffs as counterproductive, costing Washington’s trade-dependent agricultural industry key access to Asian markets and setting the stage for big money losses. She took issue with Trump’s go-it-alone approach to a North Korean nuclear threat, saying she favors a multinational approach at disarmament to de-escalate a nuclear threat.

“When you go and throw down on NATO and other countries in Europe, it’s hard to build that kind of support,” she said.

Hutchison said she’s willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, contending he gets results.

“I can’t explain a lot about the art of the deal, I haven’t read the book,” she said, referring to Trump’s book on his negotiating style. “But you have to look at the results. When you have North Koreans and South Koreans talking after 70 years, I think that’s progress.”

On immigration and border security, Hutchison said she favors a wall — whether physical or by other means — to secure the nation’s southern border. Cantwell called building the Trump-backed wall “a waste of money,” saying she supports funding technology programs and local police departments to combat the drug and human trafficking crossing the border.

On health care, Hutchison described the Affordable Care Act as an overly complex mess created by big pharma, hospitals and insurance companies that has raided Medicare “to the tune of one trillion dollars.” She said she favors a free-market system to drive down costs through competition.

Cantwell criticized the Trump administration for pushing “junk insurance” plans that eliminate cost-share reductions for low-income families, and opposes the administration’s efforts to eliminate the ACA’s pre-existing conditions protections. She said she supports using Washington’s Basic Health Program as a model for a federal law to expand low-cost, comprehensive coverage.

On gun control, Cantwell said she supports raising the legal age for purchasing semi-automatic rifles to 21 from 18, backs universal background checks and supports making federal a law in Washington and two other states that prohibits people who’ve been committed for mental-health treatment or found not guilty by reason of insanity for certain crimes from possessing a firearm.

“You can get these guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t be holding them,” she said.

Hutchison countered that an “18-year-old who can go to war and hold a gun ... should be able to own a gun,” and called much of today’s gun-control debate “rhetoric” that doesn’t address the primary underlying issue of treating mental-health issues.

To a question about restoring civility in public discourse, Hutchison blamed Democrats for intolerance, saying “their mob will come after you” for expressing opposing viewpoints. During a postdebate press briefing, Hutchison doubled down on that thought, saying there was “clearly organization” between Democrats and protesters who disrupted the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings.

“I don’t think we need mobs, organized mobs coming in and screaming,” she said.

Cantwell skipped meeting with the press after the event. Instead, a Venezuela-born intern in her office supported Cantwell’s position on the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and a college student with a pre-existing medical condition spoke favorably of the senator’s work to protect health care coverage.  Retired Democratic Congressman Norm Dicks also countered Hutchison’s claims that Cantwell isn’t a presence in her home state.