The two leading candidates for Nevada’s open U.S. Senate seat faced off in a televised debate Friday night, sparring over wide-ranging topics including gun control, presidential candidates and immigration.
The hourlong event featured U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., and Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, a former Nevada attorney general. Heck and Cortez Masto are vying for the seat of retiring U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The race has drawn national attention because it represents a potential pickup opportunity for Republicans, and the outcome could determine which party controls the Senate.
The shadow of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump loomed large over the beginning of the debate, televised live across Nevada and broadcast on KLAS-TV, Channel 8, the Las Vegas CBS affiliate, and on KTVN-TV, the CBS affiliate in Reno. It also aired live on C-SPAN. The debate took place at Canyon Springs High School in North Las Vegas in front of an audience of about 250 people.
The moderators were KLAS-TV anchor Denise Valdez, KLAS-TV “Politics Now” host and Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Steve Sebelius, and KINC-TV anchor Tsi-Tsi-Ki Félix.
Heck was asked about his decision last week to withdraw support of Trump after media reports surfaced of a tape in which Trump talked in explicit terms in 2005 about groping women.
Heck called the decision “very personal,” noting that as an emergency room doctor, he’s taken care of women who have been assaulted. He said his wife was a victim of domestic abuse in a prior relationship.
Cortez Masto was asked why Nevadans should trust Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in light of her practice of using a personal email server and account while secretary of state.
Cortez Masto answered that Clinton took responsibility, and then quickly pivoted to Heck and Trump.
“It is astonishing to me for eight months, nine months he was Donald Trump’s biggest supporter,” Cortez Masto said, pointing to Trump’s prior comments about immigrants and others.
“Congressman Heck is worried about his political career,” she declared.
Heck criticized Cortez Masto’s support of Clinton, saying Clinton has “put our national security at risk by putting classified material on a server in her basement.”
The two traded barbs about taxes, though neither, when asked, gave a firm salary figure for when high earners should start facing more taxes.
Cortez Masto said she supports tax breaks for “working families” but not big corporations taking jobs overseas.
She said she’s willing to look at Clinton’s $250,000 salary level that’s part of the presidential candidate’s plan, though she didn’t support it outright.
Heck said the tax code needs to be reformed in general into a “fairer, flatter, broader tax system.”
“Everybody should pay something into the treasury to support that man and woman who’s wearing a uniform,” Heck said.
Cortez Masto shot back: “It’s typical. He doesn’t answer the question and dances around it.”
Heck called her comment hypocritical, noting that she didn’t give a figure either.
The candidates were asked to give a specific way their immigration plan differed from their opponent’s.
Cortez Masto said she wanted to ensure undocumented immigrants were put on a “tough but fair path to citizenship.”
“We know passing comprehensive immigration reform would contribute to our economy, and we could still address border security,” she said.
Heck said he’d like to fix problems in the existing immigration system.
“They shouldn’t have to wait 10 to 12 years to bring their spouse over,” he said.
Heck said undocumented immigrants with a criminal record should be deported.
The two candidates disagreed on Ballot Question 1, which would require that private firearm sales in Nevada be conducted through a licensed gun dealer who runs a background check.
Heck said he does not support Question 1 because the records used in the current background check system are inadequate. He favors strengthening penalties against people who buy guns for others who are ineligible and improving mental health care.
Cortez Masto supports Question 1 and said people shouldn’t be able to buy a gun over the internet. She said guns should be off-limits to convicts or people with a mental illness.
The two were asked about vetting for refugees from war-torn countries. Cortez Masto said a thorough vetting process was needed, adding that many refugees are endangered women and children.
Heck said the current vetting process is inadequate. He advocated for keeping refugees closer to their home countries in humanitarian “safe zones” created by the United Nations and supported by the U.S.
KINC-TV in Las Vegas and KREN-TV in Reno, both Univision/Entravision affiliates, will air the debate, translated into Spanish, at 5 p.m. Sunday.
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