Monday, Oct. 15, 2012 | 10 p.m.
In their third and final debate of the U.S. Senate campaign, incumbent Republican Dean Heller and his Democratic opponent, Rep. Shelley Berkley, dug in to their previously established positions while discussing attack ads, Medicare reform, energy policy and immigration among a host of other issues.
Jon Ralston, who moderated the debate that is being shown in two parts on his KSNV Channel 3 show "Ralston Reports," kicked off the hourlong session by asking Heller to defend an ad in which his campaign criticizes Berkley for purchasing foreclosed homes and reselling them. The ad claims Berkley profited off the misfortune of Nevada residents and doubles-down on a previous claim from Heller, stating Berkley is “one of the most corrupt members of Congress.”
Heller stood by the ad and his stance on Berkley’s ethics.
“I would not do what she is doing,” Heller said. “I would not capitalize on the misery of my own constituents.”
Berkley argued that while she may have profited off the sales, what she was doing was beneficial to the community.
“You're telling me that there’s something wrong with buying an empty bank-owned home, fixing it up, and giving middle-income families an opportunity to purchase a home,” Berkley said. “The fact of the matter is this is the pot calling the kettle black. When it comes to foreclosures, (Heller) is telling homeowners you’re on your own.”
The candidates maintained an animated back-and-forth throughout the debate, frequently cutting each other off. They sat inches apart at a desk across from Ralston, and kept arguing during commercial breaks. The news program host frequently fact-checked the candidates on the spot and challenged vague or off-topic responses.
Heller has attacked Berkley over an ongoing House Ethics Committee investigation, which accuses her of backing policies that would financially benefit her husband, a Las Vegas nephrologist. Heller has called Berkley “the most unethical, corrupt person I’ve ever met in my life.”
When questioned on the seemingly hyperbolic statement, Heller stood by it saying Berkley’s troubles go beyond the Southern Nevada kidney care facility she helped keep open along with the rest of Nevada delegation.
Ralston asked Berkley to clarify inconsistent accounts she has given on how far she went to publicly disclose her husband’s profession while working on the policies that would benefit him. Berkley, citing the investigation, refused to answer.
“They are going through this process, at the end of this process there is absolutely no doubt in my mind, in spite of the accusations by my opponent, that it will be determined that I did absolutely nothing wrong,” Berkley said. “ … My one and only concern was for the health and well-being of the patients in Nevada.”
Heller said he did not know Berkley’s husband was a kidney specialist, and if he had known, he would have told her to “be more careful.”
Moving on to Medicare reform, Ralston asked Heller about his two votes for Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plans, which would have fundamentally altered the way Medicare is delivered.
“I voted for it twice, and against it once because I want a real discussion on the Senate floor about Medicare and Social Security,” Heller said. “ … I agree we have to do something (to stabilize Medicare financially), we have to throw ideas out there. I’m not saying Paul Ryan’s plan is the best plan, but it’s the only plan that’s been put out there.”
Berkley criticized the Ryan plan for use of government vouchers that would be used to purchase private insurance, saying bringing in for-profit companies would hurt consumers.
She advocated for better checks in the Medicare system for eliminating fraud and waste, allowing Medicare to negotiate directly with drug companies, and the re-importation of medicines to cut costs of the program.
The second half of the debate started with a discussion about which candidate has been more willing to cross the aisle and work with the other party. While both claimed the crown of most bipartisan, they also both voted with their own party more than 90 percent of the time.
Next, Ralston moved on to energy policy. Heller touted his votes for the Keystone Pipeline and his proposal to lower gas prices by eliminating some tax loopholes for energy companies.
Berkley countered that she would have voted for the Keystone Pipeline if a provision mandating the oil stay in the United States had remained in the legislation.
“It’s about what you do, not what you say. She voted against the pipeline, she said she is for the copper mine in Lyon county and she votes against it, she says she is for the Second Amendment and then she votes against it,” referring to the Yerington mine project and Berkley’s support for some gun control laws in contrast to his endorsement from the National Rifle Association.
Berkley said Heller has voted to preserve tax subsidies for oil companies numerous times, and his proposal to save consumers “a penny” at the pump is a gimmick. Berkley said in the second debate that she did not vote for the Yerington land bill because it was bundled with other bills that she opposed.
“I think we take away the tax subsidies from big oil and invest it in renewable energy,” Berkley said. “That’s exactly what we should be doing. We can create good-paying jobs right here in Nevada.”
In the second debate, Heller answered a question on immigration and referred to immigrants as “these people” while saying that he has tried to support policies to help them succeed in this country. The line caused uproar from local Democrats, especially Hispanics, who said it was an insult and demanded an apology.
On Monday, approximately 20 protesters stood in front of studio picketing against Heller’s comments and his position on immigration issues, which include opposition to the Dream Act and birthright citizenship. As Heller tried to enter the studio, the activists from Dream Big Vegas and Berkley supporters shouted: “Education not deportation.”
Despite the attacks, Heller stood by his previous positions in the third debate. He referred to the Dream Act as a “backdoor amnesty” and reiterated that his support for making English the nation’s official language and no longer allowing voting in languages other than English would help immigrants succeed.
“I believe (birthright citizenship) was important in the constitution years ago. At the beginning of this country it made a lot of sense. It makes less sense today,” Heller said.
Berkley said she supports the Dream Act and does not see it as a “blanket amnesty” because it would be young people pursuing their education or serving in the military “who were brought here through no fault of their own.”
It was not until the final question from Ralston that the two combatants found some common ground. Both candidates expressed support for Israel in its efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring the technology for nuclear weapons, and said the United States should fully back the Middle Eastern country.
Heller, who represented the 2nd Congressional District before being appointed to the U.S. Senate after Sen. John Ensign resigned, is looking for his first full term. Berkley, who represents the heavily Democratic 1st Congressional District, is making her first attempt at the Senate.
The race has been close and contentious, and both candidates have leaned on political action committees, their respective political parties and fellow politicians for support at rallies and in the battle to rule the airwaves. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has stumped for Berkley, and Gov. Brian Sandoval appears in a TV ad endorsing Heller. The Sunlight Foundation reported earlier this month that organizations outside the two candidates’ campaigns have spent a combined $10 million on the race.
The race is a crucial variable arithmetic for determining which party will control the upper house — and if Reid keeps his post as majority leader.