GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Lincoln City Councilwoman Jane Raybould spent much of an hourlong debate Monday accusing U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, a Republican, of serving the interests of her party and its donors over the needs of most Nebraskans.
Raybould, a Democrat, criticized Fischer for not taking action on school shootings. “Sen. Fischer is part of that problem.”
At another point, Raybould called Fischer “corrupt” and didn’t back down during a post-debate interview, citing Fischer’s support for insurance companies, railroads and cable companies.
“While she is taking their money, she is throwing Nebraska families under the bus,” said Raybould, whose campaign says it accepts no donations from corporate political action committees.
Fischer dismissed the accusations as desperation. During The World-Herald/KMTV debate at the Nebraska State Fair, Fischer focused on defending and articulating her record, emphasizing votes for funding roads, a new effort on paid family leave and national security.
“It was disappointing that my opponent was on the attack so much,” Fischer told The World-Herald. “Nebraskans want to hear … what we’re getting done, and I’ve been effective in the Senate.”
The reason for Raybould’s aggressiveness? Fischer, a GOP incumbent in a red-leaning state, has not yet agreed to additional debates. Raybould has only so many chances to raise her profile.
Fischer took the fight to Raybould on one issue: family leave. Raybould has criticized Fischer’s legislation offering companies a tax break over the next two years if they offer employees paid family leave.
That was how Fischer spent the question she got to ask her opponent. She asked whether the Raybould family’s employees at Super Saver and Russ’s Markets grocery stores get paid family leave.
Raybould offered no direct answer, saying her family’s business employs roughly 2,000 people and that B&R Stores Inc.’s benefits offer parents the freedom to take vacation or sick time as needed.
Fischer, in a follow-up interview, said, “There’s a big difference between paid family leave and someone having to take vacation time to take their kid to the doctor.”
Other issues that drew noteworthy exchanges included health care, immigration and the GOP tax cut bill, which sparked a back and forth over its economic benefits and whom it helps most.
Raybould said she’d like to see a more modest tax cut plan, one that focuses longer-lasting tax cuts on middle-income Americans and small-business owners instead of high earners and large corporations.
Fischer, who voted for the bill, defended it as fuel for economic growth. Experts, she said, no longer wonder if anemic economic growth is the new American norm.
On health care, both echoed what they told The World-Herald in recent weeks. Fischer said again that she wants to boost competition in the insurance marketplace, including across state lines. She also talked about improving affordability by giving consumers access to the costs of medical procedures.
Raybould spent much of her health care answer attacking Fischer’s votes to repeal parts of Obamacare instead of discussing her own plan, which emphasizes physician assistants and nurse practitioners.
In broad strokes, Raybould said she agreed with Fischer’s approach on immigration reform. Both said the nation needs to improve border security. Both said visa enforcement needs to improve. Both said Congress needs to step up on behalf of children brought into the country illegally as kids. Both also emphasized the importance of immigrants to Nebraska agriculture.
President Donald Trump’s politics and policies pervaded many of the debate’s questions, including one on what, if anything, Congress should do to push back on the president’s trade disputes with China and others.
Fischer argued the benefits to Nebraskans of continued engagement, citing her three meetings with Trump and correspondence and visits with Cabinet secretaries as opportunities attackers don’t have.
Raybould argued that Nebraskans have seen no benefits to Fischer’s behind-the-scenes approach and called for the Senate to assert its constitutional authority on trade.
In a rebuttal to a Raybould attack, Fischer said she supports limiting the president’s authority to add tariffs for national security reasons. She also touted progress announced Monday on a two-way trade deal with Mexico.
For one of the questions solicited from World-Herald readers, Fischer was asked whether she would be a consistent yes vote for Trump. She said she’d make her own decisions and consider Nebraska’s interests. She said, for example, that she is an ethanol supporter when many Republicans aren’t.
The same reader asked Raybould whether she could work with Republicans if the GOP holds on to the Senate, and she said she could, citing her work in the minority on the Lancaster County Board. Her hardest vote as a public official, she said, was a bipartisan vote to privatize the county’s mental health center.
The investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election also came up, with Fischer saying she wants to be sure the special counsel is free to finish his work.
Raybould, in a related question, said she disagrees with Democrats who want to jump to the conclusion that impeachment is already warranted. There aren’t enough facts out to make a decision, she said.
Both agreed about the importance of securing American elections and said there is a federal role in working with states and counties to do so.
Perhaps the biggest drama during the debate concerned the crowd of about 175. Some last-minute arrivals were shut out to minimize distractions for the television audience, which included C-SPAN.
Jim Schultz, the Libertarian Party candidate, was not invited.