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November 25, 2014

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POLITICAL MEMO:

Republicans’ U.S. Senate debate devoid of substance

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Sue Lowden, seated next to Danny Tarkanian, right, answers a question April 30 during a Republican debate sponsored by conservative talk radio station KDWN.

Senate Republican Debate

Chad Christensen answers a question Friday during a Republican debate sponsored by conservative talk radio station KDWN. Launch slideshow »

Sun Coverage

The level of discourse at a a Senate debate Friday was foretold by three words: “Harry Reid Sucks!”

Written on a white board in a packed showroom at the Orleans, it was part of moderator Heidi Harris’ attempt to push five Republican candidates beyond their party’s talking points in the race to oust the Senate majority leader. The effort failed, instead producing a debate short on substance and big on rhetoric and gimmicks.

To point, candidates’ names were written on poker chips and then pulled from a Crown Royal bag to determine speaking order, a reference to the infamous Clark County Commission corruption scandal.

The questions focused on electability and personal integrity. The subtext was clear: Let’s find the winner and worry about solving problems later.

Most remarkable was the absence of the race’s biggest controversy: Chickengate. Neither the candidates, who were given the opportunity to address each other, nor Harris raised the issue of Sue Lowden’s suggestion that bartering with doctors (“Bring a chicken to the doctor.”) is an effective way to reduce health care costs. The omission was surprising because Danny Tarkanian, her chief rival, has been hammering her on the issue on a near-daily basis, piggybacking on Reid’s attacks.

After drawing national attention, Lowden has since walked back her comments, writing in Politico, “The comment I made about bartering was not, and was never intended to be, a policy proposal.”

The failed opportunity to address health care seemed to be a tacit admission that it’s not a Republican issue, despite the fact that Nevada has one of the highest uninsured rates in the country.

When policy was raised, it was couched in leading terms. Here’s how Harris, a conservative radio talk show host, asked candidates about financial regulatory reform: “Wall Street, total dog and pony show?”

The candidates got the hint. All of them essentially said yes. Former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle won applause with this line: “Reform is just another word for takeover.” Meanwhile, federal prosecutors have opened a possible criminal investigation into trading at Goldman Sachs, according to The Wall Street Journal.

On immigration, the candidates tried to one-up each other, heaping praise on Arizona and its tough new law that would force immigrants to carry identifying papers and require police to question the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Critics have raised concerns that the law will lead to widespread racial profiling, but that controversy went unmentioned.

The candidates parroted the talking point that the measure illustrates the federal government’s failure to enforce immigration laws. John Chachas, an Ely native and Wall Street investment banker, came closest to giving the debate some meat, talking about the country’s huge underground economy and the strains illegal immigrants place on the education and health care systems.

But it was time for the next question: How would the candidates beat scrappy Harry Reid and his $25 million war chest?

Ironically, Assemblyman Chad Christensen, after endorsing Arizona’s immigration law, told the crowd that because he speaks Spanish he could court Latinos. Like Reid, he’s a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so he said he could also court the Mormon vote.

Lowden said she had hired the same campaign team that helped South Dakota Congressman John Thune oust Sen. Tom Daschle, Reid’s predecessor as Senate majority leader. Having raised $2.1 million and matching some of her donations, Lowden also touted her fundraising prowess.

Tarkanian said he had already beaten Reid, indirectly and in court, through a defamation lawsuit he won last year. He successfully sued a former opponent, state Sen. Mike Schneider, for campaign attacks that he says were drawn from Reid’s research team.

Angle cited a recent spate of conservative endorsements, including the Tea Party Express, the Gun Owners of America — and Joe the Plumber.

Chachas spoke about appealing to independents and using Reid’s record against him. “He’s given us 24 years of great stuff,” he said. “Read it and put it on television.” He also said he has cash. Lots of it.

What passed for substance was a debate over Tarkanian’s record as a lawyer (he was sanctioned by the Nevada Supreme Court for doing legal work while his law license was inactive) and Lowden’s past donations to Reid (she contributed decades ago but “clearly he’s a different person” today).

Chachas, however, went to lengths to elevate the discussion, asking Angle what criteria she would use to evaluate a Supreme Court justice.

Angle stuck to the talking points: “We have too many Supreme Court justices who are legislating from the bench.”

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