CONWAY — During a debate Thursday between the 4th District congressional candidates, Republican Tom Cotton mentioned Obama so many times that Democratic state Sen. Gene Jeffress wondered if Cotton was trying to run against the president.
"We’ve got two paths," Cotton said. "We can have the path that Barack Obama has led us down for four years, the path of statism and cronyism, of decline and ultimately eclipse. … Or we can have the second path, the path that has always made America great and prosperous, the path of limited and constitutional government, of a free enterprise system for free people, of individual liberties, of American leadership and strength in the world."
"I get the idea that Mr. Cotton may be running against Mr. Obama," Jeffress said. "I’m not running for that office. I’m running for the 4th District of the state of Arkansas. I want to make it a better place to live."
Cotton and Jeffress, along with Joshua Drake of the Green Party and Bobby Tullis of the Libertarian Party, met for a debate hosted by the Arkansas Educational Television Network on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas. The four are vying to succeed U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Prescott, who is retiring from Congress.
Cotton, the front-runner in the race, was the subject of several barbs from of his opponents but saved most of his criticism for Obama and Democrats in Congress.
Responding to a question about gridlock in Washington, Cotton, a Dardanelle resident and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, differed from his opponents in defending the frequent partisan clashes in Congress.
"We all have to work together in Washington to accomplish something for the country, but at the same time we should remember what the lack of gridlock brought us in 2009 and 2010," he said. "It brought us an $800 billion stimulus that didn’t create jobs or grow the economy, it brought is Obamacare, it brought us a financial regulatory bill that has increased the cost of banking all across the 4th District of Arkansas.
"Sometimes ‘gridlock’ is just a left-wing term for the separation of powers and checks and balances the founders created that are essential to safeguard our liberties," he said.
Drake, a Hot Springs lawyer, said Cotton’s words were "an example of the problem."
"You have a Republican who’s calling gridlock a left-wing term. You couldn’t be more polarizing," he said.
Drake said that if voters are concerned about gridlock, they should look outside the two-party system and should not elect someone whose money comes "from D.C. or comes from the investment firms in Little Rock" — a jab at Cotton.
Tullis, a Mineral Springs business owner and former state legislator who ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2010, said the answer to gridlock is to send independent voices like his to Washington.
"Congress sucks," Tullis said.
Jeffress, a Louann resident and former public school teacher who has served in the state Legislature since 1997, said he is willing to work with anyone who is willing to work with him.
Jeffress also noted that he has "not received one penny from the National Democratic Party" and questioned the depth of his opponents’ Arkansas roots.
"Gentlemen, where have you lived your lives? Gene Jeffress has lived in the 4th District," he said.
Drake, who grew up in Tennessee and has lived in Arkansas for the past 18 years, told reporters after the debate, "It bothers me that Tom Cotton can produce slick television commercials that show him as Arkansas’ native son. Tom Cotton left Arkansas the minute he graduated from high school and didn’t look back until he was sent back to run for Congress."
Cotton left immediately after the debate without speaking to reporters.
During the debate, Cotton said he supported the budget plan offered by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. He said he favored cutting taxes, giving state and county governments more authority over public education and letting states decide how to spend federal highway dollars, and said he would "stand up for our coal producers and our oil and our gas producers."
Jeffress said education is the key to growing the economy. He said he would work to secure highway funding for Arkansas and would support exploration and development of natural resources, including lignite.
Drake said he supported transitioning to green energy and moving away from coal power, which he said harms the environment and contributes to global warming. He said he favored reducing defense spending and bringing soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and he criticized Cotton’s comments on federal highway dollars, saying the federal government has to control it to ensure that the states’ construction projects are connected to each other.
Tullis said he would support eliminating the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Labor and "all welfare, corporate and personal."
Cotton said he would work to repeal Obamacare, which he said "took $700 billion out of Medicare."
Jeffress said that if Cotton supported repealing Obamacare, then he assumed that Cotton believed health care should be available only to "people that can afford to give him funding for his campaign from New York or Washington or Texas, wherever."
Drake said Obamacare shifted money but did not take money away from Medicare recipients. He told reporters he was glad that Congress passed some form of health care, though he would have preferred to extend Medicare to everyone.
Tullis told reporters he favors repealing Obamacare.
The debate was scheduled to air at 8 p.m. Thursday and again Nov. 4 at 5 p.m.