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Heck, Cortez Masto trade jabs in feisty U.S. Senate debate

Nevada Senate Debate at Canyon Springs High School

Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Pool

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto, shakes hands with U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., after the Nevada Senatorial Debate at Canyon Springs High School on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, in North Las Vegas. The debate was televised statewide.

Nevada Senate Debate at Canyon Springs High School

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto takes the stage during the Nevada Senatorial Debate at Canyon Springs High School on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, in North Las Vegas. The debate between Cortez Masto and U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., was televised statewide. Launch slideshow »

Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Joe Heck faced off Friday night in what is likely to be not only their first but last U.S. Senate debate ahead the November election.

While Cortez Masto quickly spun questions back around to attack Heck, the Republican congressman nimbly dove deep into the nuances of policy positions and pressed the former Nevada attorney general for specifics. Both candidates proved their quick-footedness in the 60-minute debate, where they covered everything from immigration to the housing crisis in Nevada.

The debate, co-hosted by KLAS-TV and KINC-TV Univision, was aired live from Canyon Springs High School in North Las Vegas. KLAS anchor Denise Valdez, the station’s Politics Now host Steve Sebelius and KINC anchor Tsi-Tsi-Ki Felix moderated the debate.

Asked how they would work to get legislation passed in the U.S. Senate, both candidates pointed to how they had worked with the leader of the executive branch from the opposing party to get bills passed — Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval in Cortez Masto’s case and Democratic U.S. President Barack Obama in Heck’s.

Both candidates were also probed over their support — or lack thereof — for their party’s presidential nominees.

Heck said it was a “very personal decision” to withdraw his support for Donald Trump last week after the lewd comments the Republican presidential candidate made about groping and forcing kisses on women came to light. He said he’s taken care of far too many women who have been the victims of domestic violence or sexual assault and noted that his wife was also a domestic abuse victim in a prior relationship.

“I’ve served in the Army Reserve for over 26 years and I’ve tried to live my life by not just a military code of honor but a personal code of honor,” Heck said. “It’s what I owe the people who elected me to represent them in the halls of Congress.”

Cortez Masto, meanwhile, dismissed questions over Democrat Hillary Clinton’s choice to use a personal email server while secretary of state, saying that Clinton has taken responsibility for her actions, recognized it was a mistake, and has said she would never do it again.

“There's no doubt in my mind she has the temperament, the experience and ability to lead this country as commander in chief,” Cortez Masto said.

On immigration, Cortez Masto said that she would use drones, satellites or other technology to increase border security, but said the broader need is for comprehensive immigration reform. Heck stressed the need to reform the country’s legal immigration system, adding that those immigrants in the country illegally who have a criminal record should be deported, while those who have been law-abiding should be given some kind of legal status.

The two also split over whether they support the ballot measure in Nevada to implement universal background checks on gun sales and transfers. Cortez Masto called it “common sense” while Heck said it is “ambiguous” and worried that it would criminalize a person lending a gun to someone else.

In one of the more fiery moments in the debate, Cortez Masto criticized Heck for not answering the moderator’s question in declining to put a number on exactly at what level taxes on top wage earners should be raised. Heck called her comment “hypocritical,” since she had just danced around the question in the same way.

Cortez Masto did say she would look at the $250,000 a year income threshold Clinton has set for the level at which she would raise taxes. Heck, meanwhile, advocated for a “fair, flatter, broader tax system.”

The two also clashed over what kind of U.S. Supreme Court justices they would appoint. Heck said that he does not have a litmus test for justices but would prefer someone who interprets the U.S. Constitution as written. Cortez Masto said she would prefer someone like Justice Sonia Sotomayor or Elena Kagan.

They offered contrasting perspectives on the Affordable Care Act. Cortez Masto supports the ACA but wants to fix the so-called Cadillac tax provision while Heck advocates to “repeal, repair, and replace” the whole legislation.

Toward the end of the debate, the candidates were each allowed to ask one question of the other.

Heck used his question to ask Cortez Masto an extremely technical question about the Hague’s recent rejection of China’s claims to the South China Sea and what, if anything, the U.S. should do.

In response, Cortez Masto gave a broad answer about the U.S. relations with China before pivoting to talk about why Trump is an unfit commander in chief.

“We know our relationship with China is complicated. There are some areas we work together, like with North Korea,” Cortez Masto said. “With trade alone they’ve put the United States at a disadvantage with the currency manipulation and what they’ve been doing in the South China Sea.”

Heck elaborated on her answer in detail, stressing how crucial the South China Sea is to U.S. trade. “We have to make sure that there's freedom of navigation, roughly $5 trillion, roughly 30 percent of global trade passes through the South China Seas,” Heck said. “If we don't have the ability to use that maritime passage, we will lose good paying jobs right here in Nevada.”

The moderators also pushed Heck to address the comments that his former staff members made about Cortez Masto’s Mexican heritage, offensive remarks his son made on the website Reddit, and a state Republican operative confusing two black elected officials.

While he said that he has no ties to his former staffers or the state official, he reiterated the apology that both he and his son gave when those online comments first came to light.

“The actions of my son, we’ve apologized and so has he,” Heck said. “As hard as you try to raise your children the best they can be, it’s not an easy task.”

Cortez Masto was pressed to respond to why no one was put in jail over what happened with the housing crisis in Nevada. She said that while the state pursued them civilly, there wasn’t the “teeth” to take any action on the federal level.

“There should’ve been criminal actions at the federal level,” Cortez Masto said. “Here in the state of Nevada we did everything we could.”

In their closing remarks, Heck promised to address some of the most critical issues facing Nevadans — from economic recovery to the state’s inadequate education system — while Cortez Masto promised to fight for the vulnerable Nevadans and not leave any of them behind.

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