UD political scientist reflects on congressional candidate debates
Wednesday night's Delaware Debates saw candidates for First State seats in the U.S. House and Senate facing off on a wide variety of topics, including President Trump, gun regulation, climate change, and the nation' economy.
Paul Brewer is a professor at the University of Delaware’s Department of Communications.
He says going into the first debate between Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Democrat and Republican challenger Scott Walker, Blunt Rochester was the favorite.
“Coming into the debate, we knew from our own poll, and her incumbent status and the political makeup of Delaware. That Lisa Blunt Rochester is the clear frontrunner coming into the debate. And I think if you look at her performance in the debate, she performed like a frontrunner. She talked a lot about her meetings with constituents, and the policies and issues that she was a part of in her first term in Congress,” he said.
Brewer notes that for all the controversy surrounding Scott Walker’s candidacy — from the fact that the state Republican Party has disavowed him to his own admission to being an alcoholic— he performed fairly well during the debate.
“He sounded more like a conventional candidate than you might expect from some of the reporting on him. In his closing message I thought he presented a pretty standard populist message. I’m one of you, I’m an ordinary down-to-earth person, that’s why you should vote for me. I’m a centrist,” said Brewer. “He endorsed some civil rights positions, he split the difference on some issues like immigration.”
However, Brewer points out several of Walker’s positions, like defunding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were more radical.
“He denied climate change, he called healthcare a scam. And seemed to suggest that most healthcare issues could be solved by a combination of kind of clean living and eating right and sleeping right,” said Brewer. “And I think that’s a pretty unconventional position for a candidate to take.”
Brewer says research from the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication shows Blunt Rochester’s positions more closely align with the views of voters in the state.
“Delaware’s a coastal state, I think there’s a lot of concern about climate change in Delaware,” he said. “Likewise we know from our own polling that national healthcare is fairly popular. So suggesting that it’s a scam is out of sync some with where most Delawareans stand.”
But Brewer notes the exposure alone from Wednesday’s debate may have benefitted Walker’s homespun campaign.
“He showed up tonight, and so this is one of his few chances to get a message out to statewide media to voters, so you could view it as a win for him in that point of view,” said Brewer.
In the debate between longtime Senator Tom Carper and Republican challenger Rob Arlett, Carper criticized Trump, but talked about bipartisanship.
“You know, Carper’s a pretty known quantity. He articulated a vision of a progressive democrat vision but also with an emphasis on working across the aisles, which has been sort of his political brand for a long time,” said Brewer.
Arlett argued Carper’s dislike of the President makes him partisan.
“He was trying to do a little more flipping of the tables and saying I’m the real bipartisan whereas Carper is I think pretty well known in political circles as a big advocate for bipartisanship,” said Brewer.
“I thought it was interesting that at the very beginning that Carper brought up that he had voted for Kavanaugh in the past as I guess emphasizing his bipartisan credentials or as a set-up for his point about voting against Kavanaugh later,” he said. “I was kind of surprised that he brought that up given that during the primary campaign that was one of the things that he was criticized for.”
Arlett stuck to a conservative playbook.
“Endorsed repealing the Affordable Care Act, endorsed the tax cuts [of] the past last year,” said Brewer.
When discussing accountability in the #MeToo era, Arlett brought up a decades old incident where Carper slapped his first wife, giving her a black eye. Carper responded that he made a mistake and had owned it.
“That was clearly the most emotional and charged moment of the debate. Maybe for viewers in the audience the most uncomfortable moment. Carper’s obviously dealt with that before and he had a pretty impassioned response,” said Brewer.
“Obviously he’s wrestled with this issue, it’s come up in previous campaigns. Arlett made the decision to put that out there. I’m not sure as a candidate that that helps the candidate to be the one to bring up that point in a debate as opposed to having other people bring that up. But then Arlett is facing a challenge in a race that doesn’t necessarily get a lot of attention, he’s not got a lot of resources to get his message out,” he said. “I guess he decided that was something he had to do himself.”
Like in the race for Delaware’s seat in the US house of Representatives, Brewer says the views of Delaware voters are closer to those of the incumbent.
“I think in terms of who won, they both got their message across, but I think Carper’s message resonates with where Delaware voters stand more,” said Brewer. “So, he came in to the debate with a pretty clear lead and a clear favorite. I think Arlett’s pro-Trump, conservative message, I thought he articulated it very clearly but I’m not sure in a state like Delaware, which is a blue-leaning state, that it’s a winning message.”
These two races will be decided by voters on November 6th.
Delaware Public Media’s Sarah Mueller also contributed to this report.