CONWAY — Donald Trump and health care were among the issues that Arkansas’ U.S. Senate candidates sparred over in a debate Wednesday.
Republican Sen. John Boozman of Rogers met Democratic challenger Conner Eldridge of Fayetteville and Libertarian challenger Frank Gilbert of Tull for the only scheduled face-off among the candidates that Boozman has agreed to. The debate was taped at the AETN studio on the University of Central Arkansas on Wednesday afternoon for airing Wednesday night.
Asked about his support for Republican presidential Donald Trump despite controversial comments by Trump, Boozman said both of the major-party candidates are “very flawed” but praised Trump for providing a list of potential judicial nominees who, Boozman said, would interpret the constitution as the framers intended.
He said a win by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would mean a “third term of President Obama” and said Eldridge, as a former prosecutor, should call out Clinton for using a private email server to transmit government documents as secretary of state.
“If I were in that situation, if anybody that’s listening, any of y’all, were to be in that situation, we’d all be indicted,” said Boozman, who has been a senator since 2011 and served in the U.S. House for 10 years.
Gilbert, an official with the Bauxite School District, said, “Donald Trump is an embarrassment to the Republican Party. He’s an embarrassment to the American people. And to think that our allies across the world, and our enemies as well, see what he is saying and doing in the country makes us look like a third-world banana republic, and I hate that.”
He also said Clinton “is not fit to be president” because of her baggage.
Gilbert said Arkansas will vote for Trump, so Arkansans are free to make a statement by voting for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson without affecting the outcome of the election. Eldridge, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, said Clinton is “the only candidate in this race that I would trust with the nuclear codes” and that Trump should not be given an open microphone on foreign policy.
Trump has made it “abundantly clear” that he does not have the temperament to be president, he said.
“I’m in this race because I want to put country over party, and I would again call on Senator Boozman to withdraw his support for Trump,” Eldridge said.
Responding to a question about the Affordable Care Act, Boozman said the law should be repealed and replaced using “free market principles.” He said there should be more competition in the system, limits on “nuisance lawsuits” and greater access to health savings accounts, approaches that he said would lower health-care costs.
Gilbert said the law should be repealed and replaced with an approach that takes insurance companies out of the picture, such as creating government-supported free health clinics in every county.
Eldridge said he opposes repealing the Affordable Care and favors working instead to lower health-care costs. He said Boozman has no qualms about kicking 300,000 Arkansans off the health insurance plans they obtained through the law’s expansion of Medicaid.
Boozman responded that he never said he has no qualms about taking health insurance away from 300,000 Arkansans.
“What I do have qualms about is ruining everybody else’s health care,” he said.
As he has on the campaign trail, Eldridge accused Boozman of being a do-nothing legislator and pledged to be a stronger leader than the sitting senator.
“He’s been in office for 15 years. He has during that time not done a whole lot. He’s renamed a few post offices, he’s been on a bunch of taxpayer-funded foreign trips,” Eldridge said.
Talking to reporters after the debate, Boozman said, “I’ve answered 500,000 pieces of mail. We’ve have 19,000 people approach our office with problems. … I understand that I work for the people of Arkansas.”