Wilmington, N.C. — Two U.S. Senate candidates threw out words such as "shameless" and "spineless" Thursday night as they ratcheted up their attacks in their final debate before the Nov. 4 election.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis exchanged blows for an hour in a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters, pretty much ignoring Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh, who stood between them behind the news desk of WECT-TV and offered what he called "an alternative" to the major-party candidates and special interest financing.
The debate touched on some of the topics covered in a Hagan-Tillis debate on Tuesday, including foreign policy, gay marriage and the Ebola crisis but also featured some questions of special interest to Wilmington-area viewers, such as beach renourishment and offshore oil and gas exploration.
Hagan and Tillis used many of the questions to pivot to their usual talking points, from Tillis saying that Hagan supports President Barack Obama's agenda 96 percent of the time to Hagan accusing Tillis of cutting school funding and opposing equal pay for women measures.
Tillis called it "shameless" that Hagan missed a Senate Armed Services Committee to attend a campaign fundraiser in New York, missing a briefing on Islamic State militants.
"What on Earth could be more important than understanding the threat to our men and women in uniform and the threat that ISIS poses in the Middle East and to our own safety and security?" he asked.
Hagan responded by noting that Tillis missed numerous House sessions this summer while he was out raising campaign funds. She said she is well informed on the situation in Iraq and Syria and said Tillis is "spineless" because he won't provide specifics on what course of action he would support in the region.
"Our military men and women on the ground deserve to know," she said.
Amid the bickering, Haugh tried to articulate his platform of ending U.S. military involvement abroad and downsizing government, both to cut taxes and to loosen the grip of special interests on policy-making.
"We allow one-stop shopping right now because of all the centralized control in Washington," he said. "We need to decentralize the government and return a lot of matters to the states and the people."
Haugh also called the 2012 amendment outlawing gay marriage in North Carolina "repugnant" because it denied people rights instead of guaranteeing rights.
Tillis and state Senate leader Phil Berger on Thursday hired a California lawyer to continue pressing for North Carolina's law in the federal courts, despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision on Monday not to hear any appeals on the issue. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which holds legal sway in North Carolina, invalidated a similar gay marriage ban in Virginia this summer.
When Hagan said that she urged Obama to allow energy exploration off North Carolina's coast, Tillis labeled her a "pen pal," saying she and other senators should send the president legislation to sign instead of writing him forceful letters.
"We don't need a pen pal. We need a senator," he said.
In questions about the economy and the minimum wage, Tillis and Haugh both said the government needs to cut regulations to allow businesses more freedom to create jobs. Haugh, who delivers pizzas for a living and earns minimum wage, said raising the minimum wage would only lead to higher prices for all consumers. Hagan, meanwhile, said tax cuts passed by Tillis and North Carolina lawmakers only aggravated the income inequality in the state. She said raising the minimum wage would benefit thousands of people statewide, but Tillis said it would lead to job cuts instead.
Hagan and Tillis also traded charges on conflict of interest. Tillis said Hagan's husband's business received $390,000 in federal stimulus money after she voted to approve the overall stimulus package, while Hagan said Tillis' investments benefited from stimulus tax credits. She noted that her husband obtained an ethics opinion before seeking the federal grant money, while Tillis said he never directly benefited from and never voted for the stimulus package.
At the close of the debate, Tillis slipped up by saying Hagan had become part of "the Republican establishment" in Washington, D.C., allowing Haugh one last chance to differentiate himself from his opponents.
"Sometimes I get the Democrats and Republicans confused too. It's easy to do," he said with a smile. "I am here to provide an alternative that other people aren't hearing."