When asked a question about health care toward the end of her debate with Mitt Romney on Tuesday night, Jenny Wilson saw her son seated among the crowd in the Leavitt Center at Southern Utah University. “At six months old, he needed open heart surgery,” Wilson said. “We had insurance. We lived very close to one of the best hospitals in the nation, Primary Children’s Health Care. We were supported by family. I cannot imagine a family going through what we went through without health care.”
Romney and Wilson talked insurance, immigration and taxes in their only debate before voters will decide who to put in office to replace outgoing Sen. Orrin Hatch, a six-term incumbent who has held his seat since 1977. Wilson, the Democratic nominee, is a member of the Salt Lake County Council who was chief of staff for U.S. Congressman Bill Orton in the ’90s. Romney, her Republican opponent, was defeated by Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election and served as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. Both candidates played a role in bringing the Winter Olympics to Salt Lake City in 2002.
On health care, Romney pledged to back Utahns who suffer from pre-existing conditions, even though the Department of Justice is not defending the Affordable Care Act-era protections in a lawsuit brought filed by Texas. “I will not support any legislation related to health care that’s going to strip people away from their health care insurance that they have, or prevent people with pre-existing conditions from being able to get insurance and remain insured,” he said, mentioning that he thinks a Republican plan in the House of Representatives could be passed by the next Congress that could lead to “something better than Obamacare.”
After telling her son’s story, Wilson pledged to aid families less fortunate than hers. “I will fight for good health care coverage as your senator,” she said, noting that though she believes there are flaws in the ACA, it has formed a safety net for many Americans.
Romney brought up that “states know better how to care for their people than the federal government does,” a line he would repurpose multiple times throughout the night to explain his thoughts on gun reform, housing affordability and management of public lands. He also said he supported the tax bill that Republicans passed last year, but took issue with high-income earners’ tax cuts. “Rich people don’t need a tax break,” Romney said, but he did agree that the cut to the corporate tax rate kept companies in the U.S. and will spare Americans from losing their jobs.
Wilson mentioned the U.S.’ income inequality in responses to several questions. “The wealth disparity right now in this nation is killing us,” she said when asked if she would consider raising the retirement age in exchange for repealing the tax cuts. “I’m somebody who likes to find consensus, so everything is on the table for discussion, but not on the backs of our citizens.”
Reached by phone after the debate, Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the Hinckley Institute, said she was struck by the collegiality shared onstage. “What we saw tonight was two candidates who wanted to talk about the issues with a civil dialogue,” she said. There were even several moments when Romney and Wilson appeared to agree and stressed the importance of working with the other party to achieve legislative victories that benefit all Americans.
Both candidates wrapped up by painting a broad picture of their respective principles. “If you believe in a conservative philosophy, as I do, and you believe that that philosophy and those principles are the best to keep our country strong, to keep our economy strong, to help raise wages in our country, to provide good health care to all of our citizens, if you believe those principles are the right principles to our country, then I believe that I would like to have your vote,” Romney said.
“My mission when I serve you in the Senate is advancing the health, security and welfare for every Utahn in this state,” Wilson said, calling for a new generation of leaders in Washington, D.C. “In these dark hours of division, I believe we need to put the people first.”