Tensions within the party erupted on Monday as candidates for the U.S. Senate race from Ohio gathered for two debates at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.
Three Democratic candidates faced off in the morning, followed by seven Republicans in the evening, each vying for their respective party’s nomination to fill incumbent Senator Rob Portman’s seat in November’s midterm.
The debates, organized by the Ohio Debate Commission, presented the candidates with questions submitted by voters across the state ahead of the May 3 primary election.
For Democrats, the debate marked the first time the three candidates met on stage. Morgan Harper, a Columbus-based lawyer and candidate for the Democratic nomination, said the debate gave lesser-known candidates a chance to build relationships with Ohioans.
“I think we’ve seen the power of debates,” Harper said. “It gives candidates the opportunity to tell their stories, their visions of the state and voters to really have criteria to make decisions.”
One issue on which candidates from both parties agreed was the student debt crisis. Republican candidate and venture capitalist JD Vance challenged his party’s way of traditionally evading the issue, saying Republicans must actively address the root cause of the crisis.
“It comes from college administrators selling many students a bill of goods, inflating costs in the process,” Vance said. “I think colleges should be responsible for a lot of that debt.”
In the Democratic debate, Harper pushed for a broad cancellation of student loans, while U.S. Representative Tim Ryan said the way forward involves reducing the need for every high school graduate to attend college, reducing interest rates on loans and to increase Pell Grants – US government subsidized grants to help students pay for their college education.
“One of the dumbest things we’ve ever done was tell people everyone has to go to college,” Ryan said.
Republican State Sen. Matt Dolan has taken a similar stance, pushing to expand Pell Grant eligibility to those attending trade schools and other non-college vocational training.
“We need to make sure the Pell Grant can apply for whatever path you take to advance your career,” Dolan said.
Much of the Democratic debate was consumed by a clash between Harper, the lone progressive in the race, and frontrunner Ryan – who received official endorsement from the Ohio Democratic Party in February, according to a declaration of party chairwoman Elizabeth Walters. Ryan has spent much of his time fending off criticism of Harper over his history as a party insider and accepting campaign money from corporate donors.
The 2020 presidential election has been one of the top issues in the Republican debate, with several candidates pledging to fight for a formal investigation into voter fraud. which has been denied by fact-checkers – if delivered to the Senate. Former Ohio Treasurer and Ohio State alumnus Josh Mandel said he strongly supports reviewing this election.
“We can’t move on from the 2020 election. We can’t look forward or move forward until 2020 is investigated,” Mandel said.
Dolan was the only Republican candidate of the seven to acknowledge the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s victory.
“Let me be very clear here: Joe Biden is the rightful President of the United States. My problem is he’s a failed president,” Dolan said during the debate.
Republicans discussed immigration, with each candidate saying they would enforce tougher immigration laws. Jane Timken, chairwoman of the Ohio Republican Party, said she approved of Trump’s border wall.
“President Trump was absolutely right when he said, ‘This is about our national sovereignty.’ If you don’t have a wall or a border, you don’t have a country,” Timken said.
The Republican candidates spent much of the debate squaring off with moderator Karen Kasler, head of the Ohio Statehouse News Bureau, rather than each other. Mark Pukita, a computer entrepreneur running for the Republican nomination, took issue with Kasler’s frequent fact-checking.
“We had a bit of decorum and professionalism, without it being too stuffy, but it bothered me that we had so many interruptions about fact-checking,” Pukita said. “Fact checkers actually help spit and sustain the lies, and we need to get it over with.”
Republican and Democratic candidates discussed the Russian-Ukrainian war during their debates, with each agreeing that the United States should not send troops to Ukraine. Republican candidate Mike Gibbons, a Cleveland-based contractor, said he has family in the military and would not like to see them deployed to this conflict.
“I don’t think we should put boots on the ground, American boots on the ground in Ukraine,” Gibbons said.
Similarly, Westerville-based businessman and Republican candidate Neil Patel said he would prefer the United States to establish a “no-fly zone” – an area in which military aircraft are not allowed to fly. cleared to fly – over Ukraine to prevent US troops from needing to be deployed.
“I like it because we don’t want to send our boys and girls to Ukraine right now, but we can support them financially, or weapons to give them,” Patel said.
Democratic candidates have criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Traci Johnson, a Democratic candidate and Dublin-based IT manager, attacked Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as his invasions of Georgia and Ukraine’s Crimean region in 2008 and 2014, respectively.
“[Putin’s] has gone virtually unchecked, and we must end its reign of terror,” Johnson said.
The election for Ohio’s U.S. Senate seat will take place on Nov. 8.