Democratic Senate candidates seek to distinguish themselves in debate before primary

By: - May 19, 2022 10:03 pm

Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, from left, Abby Finkenauer, Mike Franken and Glenn Hurst participate in a candidate debate May 19, 2022, on Iowa PBS. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS)

The three Democrats vying for Iowa’s U.S. Senate nomination diverged on fiscal issues pertaining to student debt, universal health care and taxes for the super wealthy during a final televised debate before the June 7 primary.

Abby Finkenauer, of Cedar Rapids, Michael Franken, of Sioux City, and Glenn Hurst, of Minden, are competing for a chance to contest the seat held by Republican Chuck Grassley, a seven-term senator from New Hartford. They participated in an hourlong debate sponsored by “Iowa Press” on Iowa PBS.

Grassley, 88, has said his potential position as the most-senior senator would give Iowa a powerful voice in Congress if he is re-elected. He is being challenged in the Republican primary by state Sen. Jim Carlin, of Sioux City.

Finkenauer, 33, is a former one-term member of the U.S. House who previously served two terms in the Iowa House. Finkenauer has cast herself as the generational opposite of Grassley, noting that she would be the youngest woman ever elected to the Senate. She says Grassley has lost touch with his constituents after more than four decades in office and took numerous shots at him during the debate.

Finkenauer defends criticism of judge

She nearly missed appearing on the ballot for the primary after Republicans challenged some of the signatures her campaign had gathered, and a district court judge initially ruled she was ineligible — a decision that was overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court.

“They spent thousands of dollars and hours trying everything they could to make sure I wasn’t the one going against Grassley,” Finkenauer said of Republicans. “And they lost. The judge was wrong.”

She stood by her criticism of that district judge — whom some Democrats defended despite his decision — by saying: “I’m always going to stand up when I think something is wrong. Seven Supreme Court justices agreed.”

Franken says his candidacy appeals to centrist voters

Franken, 64, is a retired U.S. Navy admiral who sought the Democratic nomination in 2020 to take on U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst. He was defeated in the primary by Theresa Greenfield, who lost to Ernst in the general election. Franken’s campaign outraised Finkenauer’s in the first three months of 2022.

Franken has more conservative views of foreign affairs issues — he called them “inventive” views during the debate — and is the only candidate to signal support for direct U.S. military intervention in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, specifically if Russia deployed nuclear weapons. He said his candidacy appeals to middle-of-the-road voters.

“It’s that middle segment who want logical, pragmatic, smart, dedicated, national servants to work for them. Leader servants,” Franken said Thursday. “I believe I’m that person.”

Hurst, 52, is a doctor and Minden City Council member who says he is the most progressive among the three candidates. He has said he favors government-provided health care for all Americans, student loan forgiveness and reparations for the descendants of slaves.

Hurst said Thursday the recent failed candidacies among prominent Democrats — including Greenfield — were the result of those candidates being too moderate.

“They lost because they didn’t appeal to that desire for change,” he said and then insinuated that Finkenauer and Franken were too moderate while comparing himself to former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin.

Hurst calls for assault weapons ban, Supreme Court expansion

Indeed, Hurst was the only of the three during the debate to express support for an assault weapons ban, whereas Finkenauer — who described herself as “pro Second Amendment” — and Franken focused on using background checks to prevent mass shootings.

Hurst said the U.S. Supreme Court should be expanded from nine to 19 justices over time to help balance its perceived conservative slant, whereas Finkenauer and Franken called for term limits for justices rather than an expansion.

All three agreed that Congress should pass laws to ensure women can get abortions without restrictions and that people of the same sex can marry.

But all three had differing takes on a few issues:

Student debt: Hurst supports the government repaying student loans and compensating people who have already paid off their debts from school.

Finkenauer said debt repayment could be used to incentivize people to move to certain areas — such as rural Iowa — or to train for certain jobs that are in high demand.

Franken called it a “divisive issue” that would be logistically challenging and would result in the cost of college increasing.

Medicare for All: Hurst supports a national health insurance program that would eliminate private insurance and said anything less is “putting Bandaids on cannonball wounds.”

Finkenauer supports increasing Medicare reimbursement rates and having it as an option alongside private insurance: “I’m not taking away anybody’s health care from any Iowan or any American.”

Franken straddled the two. He said government-sponsored health care is “the future of America,” but it should be implemented incrementally.

Taxes on the super wealthy: Asked about proposals to establish an annual tax on accumulated wealth of $50 million or more, Hurst said it would be a way for many Americans to “reclaim your tax dollars.”

“We have set up a society that has rewarded people at the top and allowed them tax breaks and tax deductions with the idea that that money was going to trickle down to the folks who need it,” he said. “Well it didn’t trickle down.”

Finkenauer was noncommittal about support for such a bill but said the country’s system of taxation has favored the wealthy: “I will never support raising taxes on hardworking Iowans.”

Franken said he supported capitals gains taxes for certain assets such as properties, and that a limit on how much of income is taxed to fund Social Security should be eliminated. This year, those taxes are only levied on incomes of up to $147,000, according to the Social Security Administration.

Early voting began Wednesday for the June 7 primary. Voters have until Monday to request an absentee ballot by mail.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.