Republicans vying for U.S. Senate seat discuss COVID-19 response, health care during forum

Tom Coulter with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, from the Wyoming News Exchange

Republicans vying for U.S. Senate seat discuss COVID-19 response, health care during forum


By Tom Coulter

Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Via Wyoming News Exchange


CHEYENNE - Republican candidates vying to become Wyoming's next U.S. senator discussed their stances on a wide range of issues, including the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, health care reform and protests against racism, during a two-part forum Tuesday night in Sheridan.

The candidates' forum, which was organized by WyomingPBS, the Sheridan Press and Wyoming Public Radio, came about a month ahead of the state's Aug. 18 primary, though early and absentee voting have already started. With longtime U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi retiring, the ultimate winner in the Nov. 3 general election will be Wyoming's first newcomer in the Senate since 2007.

The forum was split into two segments, with five of the candidates featured in the first hour and the other four featured in the second part of the discussion.

While some of their opinions overlapped, the candidates made distinctive points on several issues.

Though some of their specific solutions varied, the Republican candidates were in widespread agreement that private industry needed to remain the primary driver of America's health care system.

The candidates opposed concepts of government-run health care, arguing a public system would be ineffective. Josh Wheeler, a Wyoming Army National Guard veteran, compared a public health care system to the existing Veterans Affairs system, which he said sometimes fails its clients.

"What makes them think that a federally based system could actually take care of the whole populace?" Wheeler asked.

Candidates instead pointed to existing programs as potential solutions that should be expanded. Donna Rice, a Casper-based attorney, mentioned her support for expanded medical cost-sharing plans, which are largely run by faith-based groups and allow people to enter into shared medical accounts.

Others, including retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bryan Miller, mentioned the need to improve competition across state lines to lower premiums.

"That can only be done if the federal government gets out of the way and allows states to pick that up," Miller added.

Former Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis, the only candidate with previous experience in Congress, said she would immediately co-sponsor a bill from U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., aiming to lower the cost of prescription drugs and increase price transparency in health care.

Federal COVID-19 response

As Congress works this week on an additional COVID-19 stimulus package, the candidates discussed the federal response so far to the coronavirus pandemic, offering some new proposals they would bring to Washington.

During the first hour of the forum, the group of candidates agreed that Wyoming, which is facing a projected $1.5 billion deficit over the next two years, should not be allowed to use its federal relief money to balance its budget.

Lander-based candidate Michael Kemler said he would support a low-interest loan program for businesses at the federal level, but he cautioned against adding to the federal debt to solve the state's problems.

In reference to the stimulus package currently being debated in Congress, Lummis backed the Senate's $1 trillion proposal, rather than the House's package that totals roughly $3 trillion.

Rice, meanwhile, said the stimulus packages are starting to become unproductive, emphasizing the need for all proposals to focus on getting people back to work.

Robert Short, a Converse County commissioner, highlighted his help in responding to the pandemic, as he said he worked with the county health officer to institute shutdown exceptions for some businesses amid the statewide public health orders.

"We put in place measures to mitigate, to allow for a safe, operational scenario that continued to afford people the opportunity to make an income and contribute to our local economy," Short said. "That's leadership."

Star Roselli, an Arizona-based candidate seeking the seat, warned of a longer economic recovery from COVID-19, and she emphasized the country's rising debt as an issue that needs to be addressed immediately.

"(The national debt) is going to continue to be raised until more of us like-minded who are very responsible fiscally will stop that process," Roselli said. "It's a runaway train."

Laramie-based candidate John Holtz said the crisis has prompted a scattered response at different levels of government, and he emphasized the need "to enforce the law, be it local, state or federal."

Candidates were also asked about the protests against systemic racism and police brutality that have occurred across Wyoming and nationwide in recent months.

The candidates were largely reluctant to embrace the term "systemic racism" when asked about it by a panelist. Lummis, the first candidate asked about the protests, stated "people should be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin," though she added there is racism in pockets of the U.S.

"(Racism) happens individual to individual," Lummis said. "It doesn't happen because our government proclaims that there shall be no racism. This is a personal issue that we each need to take to heart and address in our own families, our own homes and our own communities."

R. Mark Armstrong, a candidate based out of Albany County, said the protests have highlighted the need for people to feel their government leaders actually represent them.

"I think a lot of this stems from the idea that these people on both sides don't feel like they have representation," Armstrong said. "I've run an environmental company as a conservative for 30 years. I can reach across that aisle and shake people's hand and say, 'We can fix this.'"

Others mentioned slightly more personal encounters with racism. Rice said her son has two black friends who they've traveled with, "and I've seen and experienced the looks and some of the things that they are frustrated with."

"I believe that the answer to right racism is not from Congress," Rice added. "It is in our hearts."

Short emphasized the need for civility amid discussions on race.

"We have to have the understanding that differing points of view do not make enemies," Short said. "We all pledge allegiance to the same flag, and we have to realize that one size does not fit all across our great country."

During the first half of the forum, candidates also briefly discussed the recent deployment of federal agents in Portland in response to the protests. Miller, speaking from his military experience, said there are several different ways for federal troops or agents to be deployed.

"Bottom line, what is going on in the country is going to hurt us and hurt us bad," Miller said.

Other candidates emphasized the constitutional rights of citizens to gather and protest, but they largely agreed that displays of violence during the protests are unacceptable.

"I don't believe that law enforcement is picking up protesters," Wheeler said. "I believe they're picking up rioters, and if you're going to riot and act like a child and be a coward and bust up people's businesses, I think any means necessary to stop them."

The primary for the U.S. Senate race will be held Aug. 18. A similar forum for the Democratic candidates in the race has been set for 7 p.m. Thursday and will be streamed on the WyomingPBS YouTube channel.

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