An incumbent and two challengers who consider themselves political outsiders agreed Monday on several topics during a U.S. Congressional District 4 debate in Conway, but responses from the Democratic candidate led to the state's party distancing itself from his platform.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Hot Springs, was joined at the Arkansas PBS debate by Democratic candidate John White of Stephens and Libertarian candidate Gregory Maxwell of Dover on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas.
The debate covered questions about inflation, national debt, recreational marijuana and abortion, but much of the discussion centered on the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C., and controversy surrounding the 2020 presidential election.
Shortly after the debate concluded, the chairman of Arkansas' Democratic Party issued a statement saying the party did not endorse comments made by White during the debate.
"Earlier today, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Congress-District 4 made numerous statements inconsistent with our Party's positions," Democratic Party of Arkansas chairman Grant Tennille said in a news release. "The Party does not endorse the candidate's stated positions. While the Democratic Party did not recruit John White to run, we honor the access to the ballot that is fundamental to American democracy and thank Mr. White for his military service to our country."
Debate panelist Byron Tate, editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial, led off the debate by noting that a recent poll shows 60% to 80% of Republicans don't believe President Joe Biden was legitimately elected, and he asked candidates their opinion on the election's outcome.
White said he believes the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
"I don't believe Biden got more votes than President Obama," White said of Biden's more than 81 million votes, the most ever cast for a U.S. presidential election candidate. "Just my opinion, and I can't prove it."
Westerman said there were "anomalies" in the 2020 election and that he signed an amicus brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to look into the results, but he noted the process "ran its due course and the state certified it, and Biden is the president."
"Unfortunately [Biden] has been the president for the last two years and we have seen the results, which has America in a recession and increasing food costs," Westerman added.
Maxwell said he doesn't believe in polls because he believes they are skewed by the mainstream media.
Tate asked if there should be concern regarding the election process because of the number of Republican nominees who have disputed the 2020 results.
Westerman said it's time to move on from the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 riot.
"I know the mainstream media and Democrats want to focus on Jan. 6, but the American people want to focus on the economy and higher food prices and higher prices at the pump and heat prices," he said.
Maxwell noted the importance of having safe and secure elections.
"We need ID's for our elections," he said. "We need a voter ID system in every state to validate your right to vote in this great America."
White attributed the debate surrounding the 2020 election to "powers unseen."
"This could have all been avoided if there weren't powers involved that we all know that are running it," White said. "I don't think Trump was one of the selected. I don't think we have voted for a candidate in a long time. The last one was [John F.] Kennedy. The people that stand up for the people end up hurt, kicked out or whatever."
Westerman said the Democratic Party is using the 2020 election controversy and the Jan. 6 riot as distractions.
"If I was Joe Biden I would run from my record as well," Westerman said. "Trump is not on the ballot. High food prices, high fuel costs, the debacle in Afghanistan and the attack on jobs -- that is what my district cares about."
"It's the news. They are the ones who are spreading it, and the government," he said. "They want us divided. Nobody wants to bring us together. Nobody is trying. We got to bring back JFK and Martin Luther King. We got to start loving each other like Jesus would like."
Asked about Trump's responsibility related to the Jan. 6 riot, White repeated it is time to move on.
"Here we go again. Let's get off Trump," he said. "I have a problem with it, but you can trigger a lot of people. Who died on Jan. 6? An Air Force veteran who was shot in the neck and a 63-year-old lady who was beaten to death by Capitol police. A Capitol police officer died from a stroke. Tell the truth and stop spreading lies."
Maxwell said Trump isn't responsible for the Jan. 6 riot, but those who participated in it are.
"The people were irresponsible," he said. "They were grown men. I hear a lot of talk about the insurrection on January 6, but people don't talk about all the protests. All the peaceful protests that erupted in fires in many cities. People just forget about the many fires and the fear they felt coming into the election. January 6 was just an outcry in the wrong direction."
Westerman also described the congressional committee's review of the Jan. 6 incident as a made-for-TV spectacle.
"The main issue is the economy and the bad policies they have made," Westerman said. "As far as Nancy Pelosi's made-for-TV committee, we often forget that the Justice Department has their own investigation going on. This committee has been at the behest of Speaker Pelosi the whole time and the Democrats who are trying to make it an issue. The American people are not concerned about January 6, but about January 20 when Biden became president and implemented his policies."
White denied that the Jan. 6 incident was a riot.
"It was not the worst day in American history. It was a big demonstration," White said. "You get 2 million Democrats together and you will have antifa, brown shirts and Black Lives Matter all together and they might burn that place down."
Westerman took issue with White's notion the Jan. 6 riot was a demonstration.
"I was in the Capitol the whole time. There was no excuse for it. It was a riot," he said. "It was a bad day in American history, but it's being looked into. It was a gift to Pelosi to make an issue out of, but the American people aren't concerned about Jan. 6 as much as the policies."
White said after the debate that he chose to run as a Democrat because it was the party of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., despite having differences with the party's current platform.
"The two greatest men in history were Democrats," he said. "Y'all lost your way. Someone has to set you straight. Neither of those men were in it for themselves. They were in it for the next generation and the ones after that. If those two men were not assisted we would be living in a totally different, peaceful world."
White also said issues such as masks, vaccines, women competing in men's sports and transgender issues are all things the government uses to divide the people.
"There is no difference between Democrat and Republican, and neither one of them cares about you," he said. "If they cared about you they would try to fix it."
Westerman said he is pro-life and fully supports Arkansas' decision to enact a trigger law that bans abortion in Arkansas except to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency.
The trigger law was enacted earlier this year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion across the nation.
"From a legal standpoint it was the right decision," Westerman said. "The debate needs to take place at the state level, not in Washington, D.C. There never was a constitutional right for an abortion, it was a judicial right."
White agreed, saying the U.S. Supreme Court made the right decision.
"They sent the power back to the states according to the 10th Amendment," he said. "The Supreme Court is not allowed to make a law. They are there to determine if something is constitutional."
White said he believes abortion got out of control over the past few decades.
Maxwell said he also agreed with the idea of state rights but mentioned the decision yanked 50 years of progress out from underneath people.
"It left them in a lurch," he said. "Men and women are responsible for an abortion. It takes two. We need to take care of the people left in the lurch because they are hurting."
Westerman noted there was 200 years of precedent for not allowing an abortion before the U.S. Supreme Court made the decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
"The foundation of our country is that we have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he said. "If we don't have the right to life, then we don't have the other two."
DEBT AND INFLATION
Debate panelist Christina Munoz Madsen, a former TV anchor, asked candidates if they had a solution to bring down the national debt, which recently surpassed more than $31 trillion.
Westerman said the Biden administration has been spending recklessly.
"We are reaching the point where interest on the debt is going to be the number one expenditure," he said. "We've got to talk about these issues."
Westerman said Americans need to ask themselves what they are getting from the spending over the past two years.
"We need to have more transparency, and with Republicans in the majority we will have it," he said.
White agreed and said he felt the federal government needs to pass a budget.
"We need to go line by line to see where the money is going," he said. "Both parties have been throwing it out the window. They are printing it and throwing it out the window. A reckoning is coming, and we are all going to have to live with it. We can't pay it back, let's be honest."
Maxwell said he agreed with the other candidates.
"We need to look at our line items," he said.