Cedar City • The hardest day for Jenny Wilson and her husband, she said Tuesday, was when her then-6-month-old son needed open-heart surgery.
They had insurance, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate said, and the support of family — things that many Americans lack in the face of a medical crisis.
“I cannot imagine a family going through what we went through without health care,” Wilson said. “I will fight for good health care coverage as your senator. I will have your back.”
The personal anecdote came near the end of a debate Tuesday at Southern Utah University. It also stood out in an otherwise restrained and by-the-book exchange of ideas between Wilson and her Republican opponent, former Massachusetts governor and two-time presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Romney’s comments centered on federalism, and the need for individual states to be empowered to run traditionally national programs like Medicaid and affordable housing. He also expressed some criticism of the tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump and the tax cuts for wealthy individuals recently enacted by the GOP-controlled Congress.
“Rich people,” Romney said, “don’t need a tax break.”
Both candidates struck a largely amicable tone, with Wilson describing her opponent as “a great guy” and Romney complimenting the Salt Lake County councilwoman for past work they had done together.
But Wilson did engage in some attacks, subtly emphasizing her status as a “fifth-generation Utahn” and more overtly critiquing Romney for seemingly shifting positions during his past electoral campaigns.
“I guess we’re going to play multiple-choice Mitt,” Wilson said. “I don’t know if it’s A, B, C or D, but I see that it does change.”
Romney said he supported some state-centered initiatives while governor of Massachusetts — like gun restrictions — that he would not support as national law. He said it is consistent with his belief that individual states should be empowered to set their own policies.
“That’s the way I like to see things happen,” he said. “My view is we do not need new federal gun legislation.”
Supreme Court confirmations
Both candidates said they were displeased with the way allegations of sexual assault against recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh were handled by the Senate.
“This process is awful,” Romney said. “I think both parties can be blamed for some of the abuse associated with this process.”
Romney said deadlines should be established for the bringing forward of complaints, criticisms and accusations against a nominee, in order to ensure time for a thorough review. And in the case of sensitive accusations, he said, private hearings should be held to protect the parties involved.
Romney has previously stated that he would have voted to confirm Kavanaugh, while Wilson has previously said the nation can do better than its newest associate justice.
During the debate, Wilson said the Kavanaugh hearings were “heartbreaking” and unnecessarily rushed.
“This was unbelievable," she said. “We could have taken more time.”
In her opening statement, Wilson said there’s a need to break up the “old boys club” that is the United States Senate. She referred back to that statement during the discussion on Kavanaugh, saying a new generation of senators is needed to bridge the partisan divide and ensure a fair process.
Kavanaugh is Trump’s second appointment to the Supreme Court. His first nominee, Neil Gorsuch, was confirmed in 2017 after Senate Republicans refused to consider Judge Merrick Garland, who was nominated by President Barack Obama after the death of Antonin Scalia in 2016.
Following Tuesday’s debate, Romney said there was no standard set by Garland’s nomination. And he declined to say whether he would support moving forward with a Trump nominee during a presidential election year — the reason given by Senate Republicans at the time of Garland’s rejection.
“It depends on when [the nomination] came and a number of circumstances — I have a hard time determining that hypothetical,” Romney said. “If you elect a conservative president, he or she will nominate conservatives to the Supreme Court. And the opposition party won’t like that, just like Republicans didn’t like it when a more liberal president nominated liberals to the Supreme Court.”
Romney said he hopes a consistent process can be agreed to by both parties, as a constant changing of the nomination rules angers the electorate and creates division.
Romney has described himself as a “deficit hawk” in campaign materials, a claim that Wilson suggested is not genuine. She criticized Romney’s support of the GOP tax cuts, despite projections that those changes will add to the federal deficit.
Romney said there were elements to the tax bill that he liked and disliked. The corporate tax rate needed to be lowered to be competitive, he said, which will help the economy grow and employment opportunities expand.
But there is “no question,” Romney said, that the government needs to cut back on excessive spending. And entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare need to be adjusted to remain solvent, such as lifting the retirement age and awarding benefits based on need.
“The benefits for higher-income individuals have to be lower,” he said.
Wilson said she’s willing to go to the table and discuss any and all reforms. But she emphasized that any changes to entitlements can’t be borne on the backs of Americans who need those programs most.
“The wealth disparity in our nation right now is killing us,” she said.
The nation is “on pause" under the current presidency, Wilson said, and America’s international relationships are strained.
“Right now we need diplomacy,” she said. “We’re missing that with this president.”
She said she hopes the Republican party will nominate a new candidate in 2020, and that she is open to the possibility of impeachment depending on the results of the ongoing special counsel’s investigation.
“We see a lot of smoke around the president right now,” she said.
Debate moderator Bruce Lindsay, a former news anchor for KSL, specifically asked Romney about his past criticisms of Trump, including statements during the 2016 election that then-candidate Trump is a “phony” and a “fraud.”
Romney was asked three times — including at a post-debate news conference — whether he still sees Trump as a phony and fraud. In each case, he declined to comment on his past statements.
“I’m going to talk about the future,” Romney said.
He said he will support Trump in things the president does right. And echoing an op-ed he wrote for The Tribune, Romney said he will call out the president when necessary, such as instances when the president makes a statement that is racist, sexist, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.
“I’ll let him know,” Romney said. “Privately at first.”