Senate Democratic hopefuls face off in debate over Ukraine, Supreme Court
Mon., Mar. 28, 2022; Wilberforce, Ohio, USA; From left, U.S. Senate Democratic candidates Traci “TJ” Johnson, Morgan Harper and Rep. Tim Ryan stand during opening statements at Ohio’s U.S. Senate Democratic Primary Debate. Mandatory Credit: Joshua A. Bickel/Ohio Debate Commission
Three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate talked Ukraine, Supreme Court, energy policy and other issues in their first debate Monday.
Rep. Tim Ryan, a current congressman and likely front-runner, fended off attacks throughout the debate from Morgan Harper, a progressive lawyer formerly with the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Traci “TJ” Johnson, a former civil servant and business owner, generally avoided the fray as the three shared the stage for the first time.
The debate, moderated by Spectrum News anchor Curtis Jackson, illuminated splits between the candidates, two of whom were largely unknown to Ohio voters before the primary. For instance, Ryan said he’d be willing to support deploying U.S. troops to Ukraine to defend the country against the Russian invasion. He said concerns about escalation, even via less drastic measures like declaring a no-fly zone over Ukraine, seem to ignore the ongoing destruction of hospitals, schools, and civilian targets in Ukraine.
“I don’t believe the U.S. can stand by and not at least provide these folks with some air support,” he said.
Harper signaled more hesitancy on the matter, saying she’d consider intervention if it came to it. Citing the shoddy intelligence that led to a U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, she called for a need to be “clearheaded” before approving any foreign deployment.
She also called for adding new seats on the U.S. Supreme Court bench, up from the nine that have been in play since 1869. She characterized the court as “radicalized” by Republicans, with the targeting of a woman’s right to receive an abortion via Roe v. Wade as a clear example.
Ryan said he opposed the idea of adding more justices, as did Johnson who called for Democrats to “tread lightly” given the chance Republicans respond with tit-for-tat increases to the bench.
All three candidates, however, said they’d agree to either abolish or reform the filibuster — a procedural tool eventually adopted by the U.S. Senate that effectively creates a 60-vote requirement (with some exceptions) in the 100-member chamber to pass legislation.
In two arenas — the defense sector and the utility industry — Harper criticized Ryan for receiving corporate contributions. She cited FirstEnergy, an Akron utility, contributing $103,000 to Ryan’s campaigns, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. She questioned how he can make prudent decisions while taking money from the company behind a massive bribery scheme that has yielded thus far the indictments of the Ohio Speaker of the House and two allies, and two related pleas of guilt for racketeering.
“We should be considering things like repealing the gas tax, that’s adding an additional 30 cents a gallon to what’s now in some cases over $4 per gallon for a lot of Ohioans,” she said. “We need to make sure that we’re addressing windfall profits that big oil, big gas, that fossil fuel industry is taking advantage of this moment of true, global, humanitarian crisis to be able to just continue to milk the working people of the state.”
Ryan defended himself in both instances citing the jobs these companies and industries provide in his district.
The Republican Senate race — in part thanks to a mix of bombastic candidates and millions of personal wealth poured into the primary — has seized more statewide and national attention than its Democratic counterpart. Harper, in an unusual strategy, has twice debated GOP candidate Josh Mandel as well, who has proven an ability to attract widespread media attention for his incendiary commentary that’s often loaded with xenophobic tropes.
Johnson said onstage in a flustered moment that it was her first debate and described feeling uneasy in front of the cameras. She cited her volunteer work, saying it proves a track record of offering decency and respect for people who needed help. She said Ohioans don’t need more divisiveness or debating — they need leaders who understand decency and respect.
“All my life, I’ve worked for people, and I enter people’s lives when they’re at the worst part of their lives. I’ve been there after their home has burned down with the American Red Cross providing food, clothing and shelter. I’ve been there for them when they were at the food pantry … I want to be your next United States Senator because you need somebody that cares about you. You need somebody that’s going to create policies that makes your life better.”
Emerson College Polling in partnership with media outlet The Hill produced some of the only public polling available, based on a fairly small sampling of 313 voters, finding Ryan in the lead with 31% of the vote. However, more than half of voters said they were undecided.
“With 51% of the voters undecided, there is not a sense of strong enthusiasm for Ryan,” said Spencer Kimball, executive director of Emerson College of Polling, in a summary of the findings.
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