***UPDATE: See recap and real-time notes below.*** 

AETN today hosts a debate between candidates for U.S Congressional District 2: Democrat Patrick Henry Hays, the former mayor of North Little Rock; Republican J. French Hill of Little Rock, a banker and ninth-generation Arkansan; and Libertarian Debbie Standiford, a North Little Rock graphic artist


The debate is kicking off at 10 this morning and you can watch a livestream here. The debate will be broadcast on AETN this evening. 

Steve Barnes will host, with KUAR’s Nathan Vandiver, El Latino’s Michel Leidermann and independent journalist Steve Brawner on the panel. 


UPDATE: Here’s my recap, plus real-time liveblog notes after the jump. 

This debate in a nutshell: Hays said that via magic pixie dust he acquired in his experience at City Hall, he’ll go to Congress and make Republicans and Democrats work together to solve problems, ending the partisan rancor which has polluted Washington. Hill said it’s all Obama’s fault. 


Neither is particularly compelling as a theory of congressional politics in 2014, but I have to guess that Hays’ approach is more compelling to swing voters. Hill is banking that he cannot lose by answering “Obama” no matter what the question is. Maybe so, but that’s not as easy a trick to pull in the Second District as it is statewide. Hays’ aw-shucks bipartisan message is designed to appeal to undecided voters, and there are still plenty. 

The debate was relatively cordial and, at least as these things go, substantive. Neither candidate delivered a knockout blow, but I’d give a small but clear edge to Hays. Part of it is style — though he blabbers a bit, he’s simply better on television than Hill, with a grandfatherly storytelling approach that plays better than Hill’s buttoned-up talking points. Moreover, Hays seemed like a candidate in a general election debate, while Hill seemed like he was still in a Republican primary. Unlike Asa Hutchinson (and to some extent Tom Cotton), who are triangulating like crazy, Hill talked about the private option and the minimum wage like he was fending off a challenge from his right. He made a lengthy, principled argument against minimum wage hikes. He continued to dodge the question of a state wage hike (sadly Vandiver asked about a federal wage hike instead), but clearly opposes any wage hike based on his statements. Meanwhile, he said that the private option was nothing but Obamacare. Based on the bobbing and weaving from the major statewide candidates, there is real risk in slamming the private option (presumably even more so in the Second District). Meanwhile, opposing the minimum wage hike is a clear-cut loser for Hill. 

Hill will get some backslapping from the Tea Party, but both of these issues almost certainly favor Hays when it comes to swing voters in the Second District. I’d expect to see ads soon on Hill’s opposition to the minimum wage. Plus private option ads: “what happens to 200,000 Arkansans who have gained coverage? What happens to the hospitals?” Hill is speaking more directly and coherently on these issues than Cotton and Hutchinson, but that comes with a political cost. 

Hays, meanwhile, was triangulating, sounding like a Rockefeller Republican on the Affordable Care Act (he said he wouldn’t have voted for the law, but would work for bipartisan fixes), immigration, and the budget. 


Hill is making a big bet that none of this will matter and that the toxicity of the name “Obama” will carry him home. We’ll see.

p.s. As one would expect, sometimes I agreed with Standiford and sometimes I disagreed. But it was nice to have a different perspective on stage (wish a Green was up there too). There are issues and perspectives and arguments worth hearing that you will never, ever hear from the major D and R candidates. Standiford was a little nervous sometimes but her presence on stage led to a substantively richer debate. 

Liveblog notes after the jump. 


Opening statements: 

Hays plays up his aw-shucks grandpa image, wishing his granddaughter a Happy Birthday. Says his ability to compromise in City Hall would be an antidote to the sort of rancor that led to the government shutdown. During the shutdown, says he decided he couldn’t sit on the sidelines and is running for Congress to make the lives of his kids and grandkids better.

Standiford introduces herself, says the Democratic and Republican candidates will merely bicker over minor differences. Gives a one-minute summary of libertarianism. 

Hill focuses on private sector experience. Fewer “big government, one-size fits all solutions,” etc. Mentions career politicians. Probably won’t be the last time.  

Asked about higher ed, Hays focuses on making college more affordable, Hill plays up vocational training and federal block grants for workforce training. Standiford says we need school choice and free-market competition, and says she sends her kids to private school and is having a positive experience. She suggests ending public subsidies for tuition aid. 


Hays, whose wife is a retired schoolteacher, tells story about one of her students, who was struggling and finally said, “Mrs. Hays, I’m hungry.” The story was only on vaguely on topic, but Hays is good at this sort of folksy, on-the-ground narrative. 

Asked about Obamcare, Hill said the question “gives me a chance to talk about some of the challenges we face with the Affordable Care Act.” Indeed, Hill presumably wants to say “Obamacare” over and over again. Hill mentions the popular component parts of Obamacare and claims that we could magically have achieved all of those goals without Obamacare. Says he wants to eliminate mandates and community rating. Hays should run an ad like Pryor did noting that Hill’s position is that insurance companies should be able to price-discriminate against women. 

“If I’d have been in Congress I wouldn’t have voted for the ACA,” Hays said. “It was too complex, it cost too much. But one thing we can do is to try to do things that reduce costs.” Hays said that Medicare reimbursement structures could be simplified and made more efficient. Tells a story about a turkey. Hays applauds Arkansas for “coming together” to pass the bipartisan private option. “While I would have voted against the ACA, the private option” is an example of “crossing party lines” to better people’s lives. Hays mentions all of the advantages of the private option — hundreds of thousands gained coverage, millions of additional revenue for the hospitals. Of course the private option is funded by the ACA. Hays seems to be straddling a line here: he would have voted against the ACA but now that it’s here, he wants to make it work. 

“You can’t be against Obamacare but for the private option, they’re one and the same,” Hill says. “It is Obamacare in Arkansas.” Hmmm, someone tell Asa Hutchinson, or Tom Cotton for that matter. At least we have a clear divide on this issue in this race. I’m guessing the private option is a winner for Hays in the Second District, but we’ll see. 

Steve Brawner, of course, asks about deficit reduction. The deficit is falling rapidly in the midst of a still-slow recovery from a devastating recession. If one were to make a list of the top ten most immediately pressing issues facing this country, this would not make the cut in a sane world. But faux-moderate deficit-hawk radicals like Brawner care about nothing else. 

Hays responds with some standard-order nonsense about how “we’d cut waste” and “go line by line” just like they did in City Hall. 

Hill says the deficit is “one of the key problems in this country” and suggests a balanced budget amendment. Proposes voodoo economics as means to miraculously raise revenues and solve the long-term debt problem. 

Standiford notes that the United States spends exponentially more on the military than any other nation in the world. Sometimes it’s nice to have the libertarian around. 

On immigration, Hays says, “First and foremost we have to secure the borders” and  says there are “bipartisan answers to this.” 
At City Hall, Hays says, “we didn’t care about Democratic crime and Republican garbage.” My understanding is that voters like this kind of talk about getting along, even though that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the perfectly rational partisan grouping that happens in the U.S. Congress, which is really nothing at all like City Hall. 

Hills says Obama “has not been a leader” on immigration. Basically the tone of this debate is that Hays says Republicans and Democrats aren’t getting along, there’s too much discord and rancor, and he can help make that happen with his bipartisan City Hall magic; Hill says that it’s all Obama’s fault that Republicans and Democrats aren’t coming together to solve problems.  

Again, nice to have the libertarian here to give a sane answer on immigration. “Our economy is demanding these laborers, the laborers want to be here, and if we don’t change the law, we will simply spend more and more money on this problem without fixing it,” Standiford said. 

Asked about increasing the federal minimum wage, Hill gives the standard conservative argument against the minimum wage. “All labor markets need the ability to have flexibility,” Hill says. Presumably this means he’s against raising the state minimum wage, though he’s dodging taking a stance. 

“To me it’s incredible that we’re not in favor of raising the minimum wage,” Hays says. Notes the ballot initiative to raise the state minimum wage to $8.50. Hays tells the story of a UCA student who couldn’t make ends meet working 40 hours a week. Hays calls it an “incredible travesty for people to work full time and still be in poverty.” Says minimum wage actually helps the economy. 

Note: even after Hays brings up the state wage hike, Hill says nothing about it. Given the arguments he’s made against the minimum wage, there is zero coherent reason for Hill remain wishy-washy on the state wage hike. Like the private option, clear difference between the candidates. This one is clearly a winner for Hays in the Second District. 

Brawner asks about ISIS and asks what non-military citizens should have to do to sacrifice. Hill and Hays both give vague, broad answers about the importance of security at home and abroad. The difference: Hill says it’s all Obama’s fault.