Raleigh, N.C. — The four Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate didn't differentiate themselves much Thursday night in their only debate before the March 15 primary but did get after Republican Sen. Richard Burr.
WRAL News anchor David Crabtree questioned Deborah Ross, Kevin Griffin, Ernest Reeves and Chris Rey on issues from immigration and the economy to health care reform and keeping guns away from the mentally ill. All four gave similar responses, saying the Affordable Care Act needs to tweaked but not thrown out, people in the U.S. illegally should be allowed to stay under certain conditions and more resources are needed to help people with mental illness.
They did separate somewhat when asked what policy they would back to help the U.S. economy. Rey and Reeves pushed for raising the minimum wage. Ross called for expanding infrastructure programs, while Griffin said programs are needed to help veterans transition into the civilian workforce.
The most fireworks came during a question about what the Democratic challengers thought of Burr's record during his 12 years in the Senate.
"He's signed on to a number of things that have been popular bipartisan bills, but he has failed to take the lead on anything," said Griffin, a Durham businessman.
Reeves, a retired military officer from Greenville, called Burr "a rubber stamp" for the Republican majority in the Senate, saying that, if elected, he would put the interests of North Carolina residents before those of the Democratic Party.
"Mr. Burr is bad for America, he's bad for North Carolina, he's bad for minorities," Reeves said.
Rey, the mayor of Spring Lake, criticized Burr's vote for sequestration, which he said hurt nearby Fort Bragg, and voters on some veteran-related legislation.
"Even though there are records of him helping veterans, there is an even longer record of him doing things to hurt veterans," Rey said.
Ross, a former state lawmaker from Raleigh, called Burr's cost-related opposition to bills that would have provided veterans with job and education assistance "just plain wrong."
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, said the debate demonstrated why none of the four Democrats would make a good successor to Burr.
"You would think candidates hoping to replace Sen. Burr, Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, would demonstrate more collective knowledge in foreign affairs, but sadly they did not demonstrate the knowledge needed to defeat ISIS and international terrorism," Woodhouse said in a statement. "Further, their willingness to turn to government to create jobs instead of the private sector should concern taxpayers and job creators."
There was a brief skirmish between Griffin and Ross at the close of the half-hour debate when Griffin noted unanswered comments on Ross' Facebook page demonstrate that she's not "working with the people."
"You have to be there. You have to be available," he said. "That's the difference in my approach."
Ross responded by noting she has campaigned across the state and has spoken with thousands of people in person and on the phone.
"They're excited about this campaign," she said.