TOPEKA — Kansas Reps. Jerry Moran and Todd Tiahrt squabbled about the differences in their mostly similar Congressional voting records when the two faced off Tuesday night in the first statewide televised debate in their battle to win the Republican Senate nomination next month.
Both men took the opportunity to take jabs at each other during the hourlong live debate sponsored by KSNT, Topeka’s NBC affiliate, and several other local news outlets. The Aug. 3 primary will essentially decide who will be the state’s next Senator.
“Kansas has a decision to make,” Tiahrt said in his closing statement of the debate. “What kind of a Senator do you want? We’re going to send a Republican to Washington, D.C. But will we send a leader? Will we send someone who’s going to fight against taxes? … There are some differences between Congressman Moran and myself.” Tiahrt also said the next Senator should be someone who is “not a compromiser like John McCain,” a reference to the Arizona Republican who is one of Moran’s Senate backers.
Taxes and spending were some of the primary topics discussed during the debate. Tiahrt charged that Moran has voted 12 times to increase taxes. “I can’t think of a tax he hasn’t voted to increase,” Tiahrt said.
Moran responded that he voted more than 200 times for lower taxes. He also touted his status as one of 17 Members who have voted against every piece of legislation that amounted to an economic stimulus or government bailout. He also supports and is a co-sponsor of fair tax legislation, he added.
Moran used Tiahrt’s spot on the Appropriations Committee to highlight what he said are differences on the issues of spending and earmarks. “Congressman Tiahrt led the effort to keep the earmark process in place,” Moran said.
Moran added that he was among the first Members in the House Republican Conference to push for an earmark moratorium and said he has the backing of Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the leading opponent of earmarks in the House.
Tiahrt responded by saying that he thinks earmarks have been misunderstood and that he is the sponsor of a bill that would overhaul the process and provide greater transparency. He also said Moran’s attacks on earmarks are disingenuous, charging that Moran had requested $250 million in earmarks last year, according to the Congressman’s website.
Tiahrt twice mentioned he has the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and the support of the Tea Party Express. The first ad that ran during the debate’s first commercial break was a new Tiahrt campaign spot that touted both endorsements.
There have been exchanges between the campaigns about which candidate has closer ties to the state, and both Members touched on the issue during the debate. Tiahrt and his family have lived in the Washington area so that the family could be together during the school year, while Moran makes the commute back and forth each week. A Moran campaign ad has charged that he is the only candidate who actually lives in Kansas.
Tiahrt said Tuesday that he has owned his house in Kansas for 27 years and that residency is not an issue that should be foremost in voters’ minds.
“Jerry and I spend the same amount of time in Washington. The issue of where you live really isn’t an issue,” Tiahrt said. “What is an issue is who has the best record on fighting taxes. Who has the best on getting things done for Kansas. … I think I’ve got that record.”
Moran, meanwhile, explained that he is kept grounded by his visits back home every week.
“What that means is it’s church on Sunday, it’s the grocery stores and post offices,” he said. “It means that you have conversations with everyday, normal Kansans. And they bring you back to reality.”
Immigration was another hot topic. Tiahrt said he supports building a fence along the border with Mexico. Moran took the opportunity to highlight Tiahrt’s support of the DREAM Act, legislation introduced in 2001 by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that would allow states to offer in-state tuition college rates for some illegal immigrants.
In his response, Tiahrt seemed to acknowledge that he has had a change of heart since first feeling compassion for the children of illegal immigrants. He had originally not wanted to “punish the children for the parent’s sins,” he said.
Both Members voiced their opposition to the Justice Department’s move Tuesday to file a lawsuit against Arizona for the state’s anti-immigration law. “They ought to be applauded, not sued,” said Moran, who has the support of former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a well-known foe of illegal immigration.
They also found common ground in their strong opposition to the Democrat-written health care bill that was signed into law this year. Moran touted being the first Member to “introduce a bill to repeal ObamaCare.'”
Tiahrt alleged that while he was on the floor fighting against the bill, Moran was “out shooting a campaign video.” Moran dismissed the charge as a “crazy allegation.” In two other instances — Tiahrt’s charges that Moran voted against George W. Bush’s tax cuts and didn’t support the permanent repeal of the estate tax — Moran dismissed the attacks as “disingenuous statements” and “simply a fabrication.”
While there were several areas of agreement between the two candidates, after the debate Moran still highlighted the negativity that has been increasing in the race. “The surprise is not that there’s agreement, the surprise is the nature of the attacks from somebody who’s worked side by side,” he said, referring to Tiahrt aiming charges at him.
With little difference between the two conservative Republicans on issues, for many voters the choice will come down to whom they like better. A recent SurveyUSA poll conducted on the race found Moran with a 20-point lead.
“Debates in primaries can have more of an impact,” said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka and one of the debate moderators. “Also personality becomes more important. You can also say it’s more subjective. We saw that in the debate, and we’ve seen that in the advertising.”