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Roll Call

Debate-O-Rama in Tossup Senate Races

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Shelley Berkley were sparring over energy policy, ironically, when a hailstorm cut power to the debate studio.

Whatever your complaint about Thursday night’s vice presidential debate, at least the two nominees didn’t have to endure a power outage in the middle of it.

With the main event between Vice President Joseph Biden and GOP nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) overshadowing their showdowns, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller (R) and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D), as well as Connecticut Rep. Christopher Murphy (D) and Republican opponent Linda McMahon, squared off in two of the most hotly contested Senate races in the country.

Heller and Berkley were sparring over energy policy, ironically, when a hailstorm cut power to the debate studio. Twice during the debate, television stations lost their feed during the face-off, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

Still, Berkley and Heller covered a lot of ground in the debate that aired following the vice presidential contest.

Berkley was on the defensive over the ethics allegations that her husband stood to benefit from her efforts to support federal funding for a kidney transplant program. Berkley’s husband has a lucrative medical practice and dialysis treatment center.

“I couldn’t have done more to make sure everyone knew my husband was a kidney specialist,” she said, according to the Sun. “I don’t think I should have disclosed more.”

Heller and Berkley had a testy exchange over regulation of online poker. The issue is of tremendous local importance, and Nevada’s powerful casino industry wants federal legislation to control the spread of online gambling. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has used the issue to bludgeon Heller for being unable to deliver Republican votes for the measure.

Reid says the poker bill “may be the most important issue facing Nevada since Yucca Mountain.” Killing the nuclear waste repository has been one of the accomplishments that Reid is most happy to tout in describing his own record.

“And I’ll be the first to say that I believe I have two opponents in this particular race; I have the Congresswoman, and I have Sen. Reid also,” Heller said. “And I’m OK with that. Because we’re going to continue to push forward, and I’ll continue to push forward on the online gaming. And we’re going to get a bill passed before the end of the year.”

Heller has said he wants the bill to originate in the House, which Reid aides say was never part of the deal.

The Nevada News Bureau provided audio clips of the debate.

In an attack that has fallen flat with Nevada media, national Democrats sought to criticize Heller for calling Latinos “these people” in explaining his position on immigration.

“Senator Heller’s comments about Nevada’s Latino community were disrespectful, demeaning, and offensive. Between his insulting comments and his long, well documented anti-Latino record, it’s clear that Heller is grossly out of touch with the Nevadans he is supposed to represent,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter said in a statement.

However, Nevada-based reporters and political observers were quick to point to examples of Berkley using similar language in the past.

Earlier in the evening, Murphy and McMahon appeared at the University of Connecticut for a debate in the race to decide which of them will take the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman (I).

While the Nevada race is nationalized without much effort because it is Reid’s home state, Murphy is making a concerted effort to do the same in Connecticut, as he is facing an expectedly strong challenge from McMahon.

“Let’s be honest what’s happened to the Republican Party in this country. It’s not the Republican Party of our parents or our grandparents. It’s become a radical party, and Linda McMahon would empower a Republican majority in the Senate who would stop at nothing to end a woman’s right to choose,” he said. “Voters are deciding between Linda McMahon and myself, but they are also deciding whether the tea party should be in charge of the United States Senate, or Democrats should.”

McMahon, on the other hand, sought to stress her independence in the Democratic-leaning state that hasn’t had a GOP Senator since Lieberman defeated incumbent Sen. Lowell Weicker in 1988.

“Congressman Murphy still tries to paint me in a corner, but he knows that I’m an independent thinker,” McMahon said. “He knows that I differ from my party on various issues, and I will be an independent thinker in Washington.”

For instance, McMahon emphasized portions of the 2010 health care law that she would like to preserve if Republicans were to get the votes to repeal it. She said she wants young people to be able to stay on their parents’ insurance through age 26 and to keep prohibitions on discrimination for pre-existing conditions, but she said the law is generally not having the desired effect of reducing health care spending.

“Insurance premiums are going up, cost of health care is going up. Now I think there are some good things. In this economy, especially,” she said.

“This mythology that you can just ‘repeal and replace,’ it is just that,” Murphy said. “The Republicans in Congress that Linda McMahon is seeking to empower have voted to repeal the bill 30-some-odd times and have never voted to replace it.”

In response to a question about insurance coverage of contraception, McMahon repeatedly made clear she supports abortion rights, even if most Republicans nationally do not.

“While health issues are clearly important to [women], when I’m traveling around the state, they’re not really talking to me about contraception. They’re talking to me about how they’re going to have a job and how they’re going to make ends meet,” she said.

Murphy, however, pointed to McMahon’s support for an amendment sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that would allow certain employers to not provide health insurance benefits for contraception due to religious beliefs.

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