Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and Susan Hutchison, the Republican challenger seeking the long-held seat, spent much of their hourlong debate Monday afternoon at Pacific Lutheran University talking past one another, neither engaging with one another nor directly answering many of the questions posed to them.
The debate, held at the Karen Hille Phillips Center at PLU’s Parkland campus, was fraught with scheduling issues, with Cantwell’s camp holding out until the eleventh hour before agreeing to a debate that moved from a Saturday evening to a Monday afternoon, something Hutchison jabbed at during her opening statement.
Moderators Essex Porter of KIRO-TV, Brandi Kruse of KCPQ-TV and Mary Nam of KOMO-TV asked questions focused on civility in politics multiple times during the debate, which both candidates handled with platitudes and sweeping statements.
Hutchison mentioned how U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was confronted by protesters at a Washington, D.C.-area restaurant recently, only to be reminded she once called Cruz a traitor when he declined to endorse Donald Trump for president.
Hutchison also mentioned that Trump brought together North and South Korea for political talks “for the first time in 70 years,” despite the countries having had multiple top-level diplomatic summits in the early 2000s.
Cantwell, meanwhile, said at one point that Republicans in Congress want to gut Medicare and Social Security to pay for Trump’s rewriting of tax law, a claim that PolitiFact rated false after Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., made it earlier this year.
The tax law was one of the few substantive debate topics over which Cantwell and Hutchison engaged.
Cantwell said the impact of the law on middle-class Washingtonians — including the removal of a tax deduction for sales tax spent in the state — was too hurtful for her to have supported the bill when it was on the Senate floor.
Hutchison rebutted that by saying that 4 million new jobs were created in the wake of the law being enacted and that “nearly that many” people had gotten off food stamps during the same time frame. Job gains have been steady but at nowhere near that rate since the law passed in December, PolitiFact found.
Trump’s increasing use of tariffs on foreign goods was the other debate topic over which Hutchison and Cantwell engaged, fitting for the U.S. state whose economy is most dependent on international trade. Cantwell cited the tens of millions of dollars lost by the state’s cherry growers after access to the Chinese market was lost while the trade war escalated and said there was no clear solution as to how the state’s farmers would be protected from them.
“Now we’re approaching apple season, and we’re going to see the same thing,” Cantwell added.
Hutchison retorted that the tariffs are a necessary short-term cost to bear for cherry farmers’ long-term economic health, sliding in a reference to her endorsement by the Washington Farm Bureau.
“They are so excited that President Trump is making free trade fair,” Hutchison said.
Nikolas Narramore was among a handful of Graham-Kapowsin High School seniors who volunteered to come to the debate. He was wearing an American flag pin on his lapel, which his mother had given him for the occasion.
Narramore is excited for the opportunity to vote for the first time during the general election Nov. 6, and he said he had never been to a political campaign event before.
“Even if your voice doesn’t get heard and what you want to happen doesn’t happen, it’s still important to be heard,” Narramore said.
Scott Darby, Narramore’s teacher, was given the opportunity to bring his students to PLU after seats were allocated to Bethel School District as well as several other Pierce County districts.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for students to take part and witness democracy in action,” Darby said.
The debate featured 90-second opening statements and 60-second answers and rebuttals to questions, which allowed the candidates to face a breadth of questions on diverse issues but also allowed Cantwell and Hutchison to get by on talking points and not provide specific solutions to problems.
Cantwell and Hutchison will meet for a second debate at 3 p.m. Oct. 20 at Spokane Community College. The events were sponsored by the Washington State Debate Coalition, a group led by the Seattle CityClub that sponsors nonpartisan debates for races of statewide importance.
Cantwell has been Washington’s junior senator since 2000, having previously been a U.S. representative and an executive at Seattle-based software company RealNetworks.
Hutchison recently stepped down as chairwoman of the Washington Republican Party to run for the Senate seat. She worked for much of her career as an anchor at KIRO-TV.