Democratic Sen. Tom Udall and Republican challenger Allen Weh, in a televised debate Thursday, challenged each other’s key campaign attacks.
Udall, who is seeking his first Senate re-election, disputed Weh’s characterizations of him as a lock-step supporter of President Barack Obama – a claim Weh renewed Thursday on the public television debate on KNME-TV.
“The president has been wrong on any number of issues, and the senator has not had the courage to stand up and break with the president,” said Weh, an aviation business owner and retired Marine Reserve colonel.
Weh cited several controversies under Obama, including the so-called “Fast and Furious” gun smuggling scandal, the 2012 Benghazi attacks and recent questions over the effectiveness of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in handling the Ebola virus.
Udall countered he would “take on anybody” whose polices would damage the state, and noted that he had opposed Obama on issues such as establishing a burn pit registry for veterans and fighting to reinstate New Mexico oil and gas royalty payments suspended by the federal government.
“This election isn’t about changing Washington,” Udall said, responding to one of Weh’s central campaign themes. “It’s about doing something for New Mexico. I stand up … every day to do what’s right for New Mexico.”
Weh rejected Udall’s claims that he supports tax cuts for the wealthy or cuts to Social Security and Medicare programs – claims that Udall repeated several times during the hourlong debate.
“Nothing is further from the truth,” Weh said. “I never said I want to cut taxes for the wealthy, and I never said I want to cut Medicare or Social Security.”
Udall criticized Weh repeatedly for affiliating himself years earlier with the tea party. Weh said he no longer associates with the group because it is “less tolerant of divergent opinions.”
“I’m running to be a United States senator to bring my private sector skills, my life’s experience to Washington,” Weh said. “I’ve built a business, I’ve created jobs and I’ve been a Marine officer. … These are skills that … are in short supply in Washington.”
The candidates disputed who was best qualified to protect continued funding for New Mexico’s national laboratories and military bases.
Udall pointed to his membership and influence on the Senate Appropriations Committee and said he has worked hard to ensure the labs and bases are fully funded.
“The fact of the matter is I bring home the funding for those labs and those bases,” Udall said.
Weh responded, “On the senator’s best day and my worst day, I’ll do a better job of protecting the military facilities and national labs than he ever can simply because of our respective backgrounds.”
The candidates disagreed on increasing the minimum wage for younger workers, the subject of caustic TV advertising in the race.
Udall has criticized Weh for his opposition to increasing the minimum wage for workers 26 years old and younger.”To say under the age of 26 there’s no minimum wage, that’s a pretty brutal course. We shouldn’t take that,” Udall said.
Weh said he supports a minimum wage increase but said young workers should be excluded to encourage employers to hire them. That employment, Weh said, would develop teens’ work ethic and reduce juvenile delinquency.
Udall, who advocated fixing the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, rather than repealing it, accused Weh of changing his position and also favoring repairs instead of repeal.
But Weh said, “I have used the term ‘fix it’ because Lord knows, there’s plenty wrong with it. In the absence of being able to fix it, we should repeal it.”
The candidates both expressed opposition to the use of American ground troops to address growing concerns in the Middle East about the Islamic State, although the candidates disagreed about the severity of the threat.
Udall presented the conflict as a reignited civil war between feuding sects, while Weh called it an “existential threat” to the U.S.