During their only meeting before the Nov. 6 election, Senate candidates Mitt Romney and Jenny Wilson kept the debate civil – even friendly at times – as they recalled working together during the 2002 Winter Olympics, though Wilson got in a few jabs against what she called Romney’s inconsistent record on several issues.
Wilson repeatedly referred to Romney as “multiple choice Mitt” over his changing views on gun control, though Romney said he has opposed new federal gun legislation since his first presidential bid in 2008.
By contrast, Romney said in his opening statements that he believed either himself or Wilson would make good senators from Utah.
“In my view, this is an election between two good people,” he said. “I believe that either one of us could make things better in Washington than they are now.”
Romney, a two-time Republican presidential candidate and former governor of Massachusetts, and Wilson, a two-term Salt Lake County councilwoman, are vying to replace retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Security at Tuesday’s debate at Southern Utah University was tightened after an audience member rushed the state during last month’s debate between GOP Rep. Chris Stewart and Democratic challenger Shireen Ghorbani at Dixie State University.
Romney dodged direct questions by moderator Bruce Lindsay about whether he still believes President Trump is a “phony” and “fraud,” as Romney said in a March 2016 speech.
“I’m not going to characterize my comment in that regard in the past. I’m going to talk about the future,” Romney said, pointing to Trump’s economic policies, which he called a positive step.
“There are times when I think the president has said some things which I think are divisive or racist or misogynistic, and I will speak out about those things,” Romney said, adding that he does not want to become a “gadfly” for everything Trump says or does.
Wilson was also asked about a previous statement in which she said she would support moving toward impeachment of Trump if there are legal grounds to support it.
“I said if the [Robert] Mueller report comes back with impeachable offenses, of course,” she said.
“Yes, I have concerns,” Wilson said of Trump, citing his frequent disparaging comments of other people. “I believe and hope that the Republican party will put up a different nominee” in 2020, she said.
Both Romney and Wilson criticized the partisanship surrounding newly-appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings and called for reforms to the confirmation process to the nation’s highest court.
Romney, quoting Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, called the process for confirming Supreme Court nominees “awful.”
“This has become far too partisan,” Romney said, harkening back to when Supreme Court nominees were less controversial.
“It used to be when you elected a president, that president was going to choose someone in their party or someone of their political instinct, and everybody got behind them,” he said. “We’ve got to go back.”
Wilson said she was “frustrated” and “heartbroken” watching the hearings. She applauded Christine Blasey Ford for coming forward to share her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. She also said there should be “a new set of rules,” including appointing a small group of senators to review accusations, investigations and to hold private hearings with alleged accusers.
Both candidates called for flexibility for private hearings to protect the safety and reputations of both parties. Romney also said there should be a deadline for accusations against nominees to be brought forward.
“The process is a mess and I think people on both sides of the aisle are recognizing that,” he said. “There’s got to be a way to get some people together to fix it.”
Both candidates criticized the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy that led to family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border and called for comprehensive immigration reform. But their proposed solutions highlight one of the starkest policy differences between the two.
Wilson called for “compassionate, family-centered” immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients and more resources for immigrants and immigrant families awaiting asylum hearings.
Romney called the family separation episode a “dark chapter in American history.” But the former presidential candidate reiterated his opposition to a special pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients.
Wilson said the hardest day for her family was when her then-six-month-old-son needed open heart surgery. She had insurance, but Wilson said she “cannot imagine a family going through what we went through without health care.”
Wilson said the Affordable Care Act is “flawed” but applauded the late Sen. John McCain for stopping the GOP-controlled Congress from repealing it.
Romney called protections for pre-existing conditions “an absolute rule” and pledged to vote against any legislation that would remove them. He also said he would support state-based health insurance programs similar to Medicaid.
Romney scaled back past criticisms he has levied against President Trump’s tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, which has resulted in retaliatory tariffs on many U.S. exports. Though he later clarified that he remains opposed to new, long-term tariffs, Romney applauded the Trump administration’s negotiation of a “new NAFTA” with Canada and Mexico through tariffs.
Wilson criticized the tariffs, which she said hurt U.S. agriculture and have driven up costs of building projects in Salt Lake County. She cited an increase by as much as $2 million on a $20 million recreation center planned for Draper. She also criticized Congress for “(letting) the president have his way on these things.”