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Akin, Steelman meet in first debate of GOP Senate contenders

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 11, 2012 - In the first formal debate featuring candidates for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate from Missouri, U.S. Rep. Todd Akin of Wildwood and former Treasurer Sarah Steelman of Rolla clashed over earmarks and a 2003 bill expanding prescription drug coverage.

Listen to the debate.

The hour-long debate was held at the Missouri Athletic Club in Town & Country and sponsored by KTRS and the St. Louis Beacon. This was the first formal meeting with two of the three major candidates aiming to take on U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., later this year. A third candidate, Frontenac businessman John Brunner, was invited to participate but did not attend.

For the most part, the candidates steered clear of criticizing each other and showcased similar views. For instance, both candidates said they opposed abortion and legalizing marijuana. Both also expressed support for expanding domestic oil drilling and opposition to embryonic stem cell research.

But the debate became more combative when KTRS radio host and moderator McGraw Milhaven asked Akin and Steelman why each would be the better candidate to face McCaskill in November.

Steelman said that unlike Akin, she's a political outsider better able to clean up Washington. Steelman also noted that she's been an opponent of earmarks, while Akin, R-Wildwood, has been a supporter.

"I think there are distinctions between what kind of person needs to be in Washington right now," Steelman said, noting she is one "who is willing to fight the status quo." She added, "Because the worst thing going for this country right now is the way Washington, D.C., has taken us. They're completely disconnected from the rest of us. They're irresponsible."

In response, Akin said, "To try to paint me as an insider is really a gross misrepresentation of fact." He said, for instance, that he voted against a 2003 bill to include prescription drug coverage in Medicare -- despite a telephone call from President George W. Bush asking for Akin's support -- and a 2008 measure to assist banks reeling from the economic downturn.

"There's a balance here," Akin said. "As a conservative, I will follow the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution says ... that spending money is the responsibility of the Congress. We cannot abdicate that to the administration. If you carry the earmark thing too far, you're basically rolling over and saying I'm going to let the president and all of his administrative agencies decide how money's going to be spent.

"I will not give up the U.S. Constitution for any particular political wind or fancy," he added.

Steelman also criticized Akin for initially voting for a House version of the prescription drug bill, adding that the congressman "voted for it before you voted against it."

"It came down to one vote in the U.S. Congress and you allowed it to move on," Steelman said. "And the only reason I'm saying that is, it does make a difference what you do and what you say in Washington. And the fact is, it boils down to this -- and it's not to impugn Congressman Akin. If you like the way it's been for the last 12 years or 15 years in Washington, if you like the direction that we're headed from that experience, then I'm not your candidate."

Akin said the prescription drug bill changed after going through the Senate, which prompted him to vote against the final version.

"If Sarah had experience in Washington, D.C., she'd realize the House creates a bill and it may not be the same bill when it comes back from the Senate," said Akin, noting that the House version had "positive" elements. "So I voted for the good thing, even though it wasn't great; it was kind of an iffy call even there. It goes to the Senate, the bill gets a whole lot worse and I vote no on it. That's standard practice in Washington, D.C."

"The bill isn't the same thing. You're not voting no and yes on the same bill, it is two different bills," he added. "You ought to do your homework, Sarah."

Common Ground On Health Care, Taxes

Before that exchange, the two candidates were asked what a 28-year-old male who decides against purchasing health insurance should do if he gets cancer.

Steelman said that person "made the choice not to cover themselves. I would hope somebody would take care of them." While noting that health care is a "big complex issue," Steelman said she would like to see more competition by allowing insurance to be sold across state lines.

"It's just like car insurance," Steelman said. "You can turn on the TV and all of you have seen the Geico and the Progressive commercials. You can buy car insurance over the internet. We need more competition. We need to have some ability to put pressure on those prices so people like this gentleman could purchase and afford health insurance."

While noted that the scenario amounts to a "tough question," Akin said, "All of us make decisions in our lives and there are consequences to those decisions."

"And if we try to separate the consequences from the decisions we make, eventually you end up with a system that's broken and will not work," Akin said. "I believe the 28-year-old that chose not to have insurance is going to have to pay a big chunk of his medical bills. And I think that unless you have that kind of discipline in our system, what's going to happen is everybody's going to say 'Well, I'm not going to get insurance because everybody's going to cover me.'"

On taxes, both candidates stated that they would prefer to move toward a "flatter" system.

"What I think we need to do is close loopholes, broaden the base and push the income tax rate down as far as we possibly can, both on individual and corporate (taxes) because we're not competitive worldwide," said Steelman, adding she would also favor cutting capital gains taxes.

Akin said one of the goals of crafting tax policy is making the system "equal under the law," adding that currently a great deal of taxes comes from the wealthiest Americans.

"Is that fair? I don't know what fair is; I know what just is," Akin said. "I think a just system is you just pay a certain percentage of what you make -- a flat income tax. You can adjust it some, but if you go to that model, it moves us much more in the right direction."

Asked by co-moderator and Beacon political reporter Jo Mannies whether "broadening the base" meant that everybody, including low-income Americans, would pay taxes, Akin said there may be some exceptions for people "at the very bottom of the economic level."

Noting there would be a "threshold" of people who'd be excluded from the tax system, Steelman also said she would be in favor of keeping a tax deduction for home mortgage interest.

Empty Chair

The absence of Brunner, who was invited to participate, was represented by an empty chair.

In an e-mail, Brunner spokesman Todd Abrajano said that while "our schedule does not allow us to participate in every event we are invited to attend, we are confident that Missouri voters will have multiple opportunities to see and hear all three candidates, together on the same stage, during the next seven months of the primary campaign."

"Regarding candidate debates, John Brunner has publicly committed to participating in a series of debates... and our campaign has proactively reached out to the (other) campaigns ... to work out a mutually acceptable schedule and finalize details," Abrajano said. "At this point, a final agreement has not been reached."

Brunner's campaign hasn't committedto a forum in Branson, which is set to take place on Jan. 30.

His absence wasn't lost on the Missouri Democratic Party spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki. She said in a statement that Brunner "was too afraid to show up today and voice his positions in public."

Still, Brunner's presence has loomed large over the last few months. He's run television advertisements across the state and could throw millions of dollars of his own money into the contest.

But both Akin and Steelman said they were not worried.

Said Akin: "I'm not fearful about anything. I believe that my job is simply to give people in Missouri a choice for a candidate who is arguably the most conservative Republican."

"I have no idea what his views are about anything, and now the public doesn't either," said Steelman. "All I can control is me. His fundraising advantage comes because he inherited a business that he's going to spend his money on to buy a U.S. Senate race. That's not my interest. I want to go out there and find out what people are thinking, what they're worried about and bring their views to Washington."

(Start of update: Abrajano said that Steelman was wrong to say that Brunner inherited Vi-Jon, which produces Germ-X hand sanitizer. After serving in the Marines, Abrajano said Brunner "went to work for Vi-Jon on the factory floor" in the 1970s. After working at Vi-Jon for about 17 years, Brunner "purchased the company," said Abrajano. "So for Sarah to say that he inherited that business is completely and factually incorrect." End of update.)

The three candidates are planning to attend a candidate forum in February at Lincoln Days in Kansas City.

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers local and state government and politics. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.