US Senate candidates Whitehouse, Flanders tackle SCOTUS, Trump in first TV debate

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EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – From the job performance of President Donald Trump to the controversial Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, Rhode Island’s two candidates for U.S. Senate offered contrasting views to voters during their first televised debate Tuesday evening. 

Incumbent Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse and Republican challenger Robert Flanders also tackled the economy, health care and the proposed power plant in Burrillville during the hour-long showdown, which was taped Monday afternoon and moderated by Target 12 reporter Tim White and Eyewitness News reporter Ted Nesi.

Watch in full: US Senate Debate » | Your Local Election Headquarters »

Whitehouse, who was first elected in 2006, made the case that he has been a bipartisan member of the Senate, highlighting his close friendship with former Republican Sen. John McCain, who died earlier this year. But he also sought to align his opponent with the Republican president, calling Flanders “as Trumpy as you can get on the issues that matter to Rhode Island.”

Flanders, a former associate justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, pitched himself as the candidate who can work on both sides of the aisle to address immigration, health care and the opioid crisis. He noted that McCain once referred to Whitehouse as a “a socialist bordering on a Communist,” and suggested the junior senator embarrassed Rhode Island with his line of questioning to Kavanaugh.

On Kavanaugh, Flanders defended his support for the nomination before the sexual assault allegations against him were fully vetted, arguing that he is a believer in the “presumption of innocence.” He accused Whitehouse of engaging in “political flatulence” when the senator questioned terms written in Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook.

Whitehouse said he found the accusations made against Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford to be “credible and compelling” and said his line of questioning shed light on the credibility of Kavanaugh. He also said the FBI conducted a “fractional investigation” into the allegations against Kavanaugh, and defended his handling of a separate, quickly-recanted accusation given to him by a constituent.

When asked about a 2017 report from The Washington Post and 60 Minutes that included a former agent-turned-whistleblower from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration blaming a Whitehouse-sponsored law for changing how the agency reviews questionable shipments of prescription drugs, Whitehouse said he believes “the whistleblower is wrong.”

Flanders accused Whitehouse of taking political contributions from the pharmaceutical industry and doing little to address opioid abuse “until the eve of an election.” The senator counted with his co-sponsorship of the 2016 Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act as evidence that he has been seeking to help addicts.

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The two attorneys did find two areas of agreement: both men said they oppose abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or legalizing marijuana at the federal level. Flanders said he is pro-life and supports term limits in Congress, while Whitehouse is pro-choice and does not support a cap on how long lawmakers can serve. 

On the economy, Whitehouse said he would support legislation to repeal President Trump’s tax reform law, arguing that it did little to address income inequality. Flanders highlighted the low unemployment rate and rising 401(k) values as evidence that Trump has been a success for the country.

Flanders also disagreed with Whitehouse that Republicans will seek to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in an attempt to close mounting federal deficits, suggesting those changes won’t happen unless a consensus is reached on a bipartisan basis.

On healthc are, Whitehouse said an attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act could cause people with pre-existing conditions to lose coverage, but Flanders said he doesn’t believe that will happen. Whitehouse said he supports “coverage for all,” though he downplayed his co-sponsorship of Bernie Sanders’ single-payer health bill, while Flanders said the country doesn’t need “socialized medicine.”

Both candidates said they support lowering the cost of drug prices.

Flanders said it was “sheer hypocrisy” that Whitehouse has refused to take a position on the proposed power plant in Burrillville, noting that he strongly opposes the project. Whitehouse said Rhode Islanders “gave me a lane” when they elected him to the Senate and said he shouldn’t weigh in on ongoing local legal proceedings.

Whitehouse held a commanding leading over Flanders in a poll released last month by WPRI 12 and Roger Williams University, with Whitehouse at 54% and Flanders at 35%. The election is Nov. 6.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan 

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