JONESBORO Republican incumbent Rick Crawford raised his central message of tackling the national debt at every opportunity during a 1st Congressional District debate Thursday, while Democratic challenger Scott Ellington emphasized his political independence and bipartisan instincts.
After the debate, Ellington said Crawford beat him.
“I felt like I wasn’t on my game,” Ellington said.
Ellington said he is used to standing before a judge when making an argument, not sitting at a table with other candidates.
Thursday’s debate at Arkansas State University was the first in which Crawford joined Ellington, Green Party candidate Jacob Holloway and Libertarian Party candidate Jessica Paxton.
For most of the 90-minute contest, Crawford and Ellington avoided direct jabs. The biggest disagreement of the debate was over outgoing 4th District U.S. Rep. Mike Ross.
Ellington said he viewed Ross, a Democrat, as a model, citing his political independence. Crawford said Ross voted 94 percent of the time with his party when Democrats controlled Congress in 2008-10.
“You might want to do more research,” Crawford said.
Ellington said after the debate that Ross, over his entire congressional career, voted with his party only about half the time.
But much of the debate found Crawford hammering home points about the debt while Ellington responded that the debt had been exacerbated by two wars and tax cuts for the wealthy.
The nation’s debt “trumps all other issues,” Crawford said. “It’s the single greatest threat to our national security.”
Crawford won in the 30-county district covering east Arkansas and parts of the Ozarks in 2010, the first time a Republican captured the district since Reconstruction.
Ellington, the prosecuting attorney for the 2nd Judicial District in northeastern Arkansas, trails Crawford by a wide margin in campaign fundraising and has suffered turmoil in his campaign staffing. The national Democratic Party pulled its support in September.
On Thursday, Ellington said those events signal that he can pursue his own political conscience if elected.
“It’s well known that I’m not the party’s darling,” Ellington said. That means he doesn’t have to follow his party’s leadership, he said.
He said he would pursue bipartisan solutions in Congress much like he has as a prosecutor.
“That’s not going on in Washington, D.C., right now,” Ellington said. “I understand the art of negotiation.”
Crawford returned repeatedly to the nation’s more than $16 trillion debt, answering questions about a balanced-budget amendment, equal pay for women and the rising costs of college tuition with a persistent message about reducing the nation’s indebtedness.
“Debt requires better use of scarce resources,” Crawford said.
Crawford has said he won’t vote to raise the debt ceiling without congressional approval of a balancedbudget amendment. He said it’s the “only way” to control federal spending.
“We’re not leaving our country better than we found it,” he said.
A balanced-budget amendment isn’t practical, Ellington said, adding that it would only slow the budgeting process.
“Every budget would be subject to a federal lawsuit,” he said.
The federal government isn’t “a bad thing,” Ellington said, because it provides necessary infrastructure and services.
Crawford talks about reducing the debt, Ellington said, but Crawford added to it by mailing unnecessary brochures to 1st District residents. Crawford has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal money on “nice, shiny cards with his name on it ... that adds to the debt,” he said.
Crawford said after the debate that his office would probably reduce the use of federally funded “franking” privileges over time, but he said the mailings were “an effective tool” to keep his constituents informed.
Paxton, the Libertarian candidate, stuck to a message of lower taxes, reduced spending and smaller government.
Paxton, a Marion resident, spoke of “freedom to live your life and not have others make your decisions for you.”
Holloway, a graduate student at ASU, raised chuckles from the audience when he said that high college tuition was caused, in part, by expensive athletic budgets.
“Hey, I like football as much as the next guy, but how much do we really need to pay Gus Malzahn?” asked Holloway, referring to the university’s football coach.
The debate was sponsored by KASU-FM 91.9, the Jonesboro Sun and the university.
No other debates with the candidates are scheduled before the Nov. 6 election.