Tuesday night's televised debate between Republicans Raul Labrador and Vaughn Ward, sponsored and broadcast live by Idaho Public Television, gave each candidate the opportunity to hammer at his opponent on issues including immigration, the 17th Amendment, and their reliability.
The two men, vying to be the Republican nominee that will face Democratic incumbent Walt Minnick in Idaho's 1st Congressional District in November, clashed in the 200-seat auditorium in the Idaho State Capitol's underground Senate wing.
Labrador fielded the first question about his clashes with Republican Party leadership in recent years. He was asked if he would be a "retread of Bill Sali," who many saw as a rather abrasive and divisive official. "You have too many people who are willing that are willing to do whatever it is that to be happy with what is happening in Congress and … kowtow to the leadership in their party," said Labrador. "I get along with people from both sides of the aisle."
Ward was questioned on his lukewarm loyalty to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who endorsed Ward in 2009 and employed him in 2008 during McCain's run at the White House. "John McCain is a hero. Do I agree with everything John McCain is about? No, I do not," said Ward. He explained that he disagrees with McCain on issues like global warming, drilling for oil, and immigration, among others. That question allowed Labrador to take his first punch at Ward. He derided Ward for flip-flopping his position on the repeal of the 17th Amendment and the support of John McCain. Labrador claimed that Ward will do or say anything to get elected. "I am the only person that has been elected to public office, but he is the only politician in this race," said Labrador. Ward declined to respond to Labrador's comment.
Ward was asked how Idaho voters could trust his authenticity and ability to do the job of a congressman, given a series of campaign miscues during the past weeks, which included a revelation that his wife works for federally-supported Fannie Mae, an order from the Pentagon to take down a campaign ad that showed Ward in his military uniform, and a story showing that Ward had unpaid taxes on property he owns in Valley County. Ward said that he never tried to hide the identity of his wife's employer and that mistakes are typical of any campaign. "There are going to be mistakes along the way; we address them, talk about them, make corrections, and move on," said Ward. When pressed further, Ward pointed to his service in the Marines as proof enough that he will serve honorably in Congress.
The most peculiar issue that has popped up in the race between Ward and Labrador is their backing for repeal of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave voters the right to elect their own U.S. senators. Ward originally supported repeal, but said Tuesday that he does not, and now favors term limits for federal lawmakers. Labrador stood by his feelings on the repeal of the amendment. “It’s not something that I’m campaigning on," Labrador said. "It’s not something that I’m going to go out there and draft a bill for." Again, he jabbed at Ward as a someone who will change his positions for the sake of political expediency. "I'm not even sure if Mr. Ward knows who he is," he said. Ward responded, saying that he believes repeal of the 17th Amendment would help states rein in a federal government that is spending too much. "Are we going to change that? No ... but what can we do? Amend the 17th Amendment and put in term limits," said Ward. He favors a six-term limit for congressman and a two-term limit for senators, as well as looking at limiting the length of employment for some congressional staffers. His measure, he believes, would give the people of America more transparency and accountability into federal government.
It was then Ward's turn to have his shot at Labrador. Labrador was questioned about his work as an immigration attorney. Labrador said that his job is giving advice to those wishing to become legal residents of the United States. "For the most part, I tell people to leave the United States, walk through the legal system," said Labrador. Then came the jab from Ward. "Illegal is illegal, and that’s how I interpret it. And there are those to keep them in this country, I want to fight to keep them out of the country," he said.
The two men have 13 days until the race is decided by voters on May 25. The pair will debate two more times; once in Boise and once in Post Falls. A recent poll shows Ward holding a 34-18 edge over Labrador, but with about 50 percent of likely voters undecided on their pick.