CHEYENNE — With just a few weeks remaining until Election Day, the pair of candidates vying to become Wyoming’s next U.S. senator discussed their approaches to the federal COVID-19 response, health care reform and several other issues during a debate Thursday night in Torrington.
The event, which was hosted by WyomingPBS and Wyoming Public Radio at Eastern Wyoming College, featured Republican Cynthia Lummis, who previously served as the state’s delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2009 to 2017, and Democrat Merav Ben-David, a zoology professor at the University of Wyoming.
The discussion Thursday night offered the first opportunity for the two candidates to debate during the buildup to the Nov. 3 general election. Early in-person and absentee voting are already underway statewide.
COVID-19 responseWith many benefits from the first federal stimulus package having expired, both candidates agreed more needs to be done to help Americans deal with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With negotiations over another stimulus package recently stalling in Congress, Lummis said she would consider supporting additional $1,200 payments to individual Americans.
“It’s possible that we may need another effort to help individuals who are out of work and small businesses continue to survive until a vaccine is found, but we’re $27 trillion in debt,” Lummis said. “As soon as we can after the recovery from COVID, we need to reduce that debt.”
Ben-David, in contrast, said she backed the Heroes Act, a roughly $3 trillion stimulus package approved by the House in May and left unconsidered by the GOP-controlled Senate.
“The state of Wyoming right now is facing a $1.6 billion shortfall, and the Heroes Act that is lingering on Mitch McConnell’s desk has a lot of money that will be allocated to support state government, such that we don’t need to fire our state employees,” said Ben-David.
Both candidates were also complimentary of the roughly $2 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress in late March, though Ben-David argued “a lot of the money went to some big donors of President Trump, instead of to needy businesses and people.”
Health care reformThe pair of candidates also discussed how they would try to boost America’s health care system, which has higher costs, on average, than in most other developed countries.
Ben-David, as she has in previous discussions, offered her support for a single-payer, universal health care system, arguing the costs of health care will go down “if everybody is part of the (same) system.”
“The Affordable Care Act is a very good step in ensuring Americans have insurance, but I believe that we need to make sure that everyone has access to health care, including rural states and rural hospitals, and that’s why I support a universal, single-payer health care system for the United States,” Ben-David said.
Lummis, meanwhile, argued the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, “doesn’t work for Wyoming,” because it provides more benefits to residents of urban areas. As one possible solution, the former congresswoman said she would co-sponsor a bill from U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., which aims to lower the cost of prescription drugs and increase price transparency in health care.
“Secondly, I would support the ability of states to buy insurance across state lines,” Lummis said. “We only have one insurance provider left in the state because of Obamacare. That’s got to change.”
Wildfire issuesWith the Mullen Fire continuing to rage southwest of Laramie, the candidates were also asked about what they would do to address the possibility of more wildfires occurring in the future.
Lummis said the issue largely boils down to the differences in forest management policies at the federal and state levels.
“State forests that have practiced fuel downloads by conservation logging and by controlled burns are much healthier than federal forests,” Lummis said. “That way, they can resist disease, (and) they can resist fires and be stronger and healthier.”
Ben-David, who is a climate scientist, argued the United States has mismanaged its forests for a century “basically to maximize the logging companies’ revenue.” She said wildfires must be considered in the context of climate change, pointing to recent record highs in global temperatures and shrinking Arctic ice sheets as examples of the broader issue.
Ben-David was also skeptical of carbon capture and sequestration technology, which has been touted by leadership in Wyoming as a potential tool to promote the state’s coal plants and to simultaneously fight climate change.
“I don’t see a single free-market company that will agree to take on the costs of burning coal and then capturing carbon from these forces, so I think we need to find different alternative energy resources,” said Ben-David.
Lummis, in response, said, “We have to have multiple sources of energy, and we want to produce them at a lower rate for carbon in our atmosphere,” pointing to the Integrated Test Center in Gillette as a useful tool to explore the technology.
Racism in the U.S.
After a summer of protests against police brutality and racism across the United States, the candidates also briefly discussed how the country should address those issues. Lummis, who has the endorsement of President Trump, said the problem lies mainly with “a few small, bad cops.”
“I don’t believe that racism is actually systemic,” Lummis said. “I think that there are pockets of racism that we need to continue to ferret out and work on and solve problems that are inherent in the differences in race, but to say that it’s systemic, I think, is to deny the basic fundamental American principles that all men are created equal, and that we all have the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness equally.”
Ben-David pushed back, stating she wished Lummis’s vision was true.
“Systemic racism has been a problem for quite a while — not only are we seeing the effects of slavery from 400 years ago, but also the treatment of indigenous people in our country,” said Ben-David, adding she would have a tribal affairs liaison in her office, if elected to the Senate.
With longtime U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi retiring, the winner in the general election will be Wyoming’s first newcomer in the Senate since 2007 — and its first female U.S. senator in state history.
Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.