Try 1 month for 99¢
Vukmir-Baldwin (copy)

Republican U.S. Senate nominee Leah Vukmir, left, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, right.

Guns, abortion, sexual harassment and assault, pay equity, immigration, health care, veterans' care, President Donald Trump and fish fry. The first U.S. Senate debate of the 2018 election had it all. 

Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin made the case to voters that she deserves a second term in Washington, while Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir argued for her opponent's ouster. The two met onstage on Monday in Milwaukee for the first time before the election, in the first of three debates scheduled before Nov. 6. 

Baldwin argued Vukmir is beholden to special interests like the National Rifle Association and insurance companies, while Vukmir shot back that Baldwin is more comfortable "with her friends in the Hamptons than she is at a Friday night fish fry here in Wisconsin." 

Baldwin and Vukmir will debate again on Saturday in Wausau, with a third and final debate scheduled Oct. 19 in Milwaukee. 

Here are some of the highlights from Monday's debate:

1. Both Baldwin and Vukmir say they want to ensure people with pre-existing conditions are covered by health insurers. They disagree on how to do that.

Baldwin argued coverage for pre-existing conditions is under attack if the Affordable Care Act is struck down — something Vukmir has long supported. Obamacare isn't perfect and needs fixing, Baldwin said, but it should not be gutted. 

Vukmir said she would "fall in front of a truck" before she let people with pre-existing conditions go without insurance coverage. She said Baldwin's plans would destroy much of the health care system as it currently exists. 

Baldwin supports a "Medicare for All" proposal put forward by Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders. Vukmir argued that plan would cost $32 trillion over 10 years, but Baldwin countered that no action would cost even more. 

2. They also agree the U.S. immigration system needs fixing. But they disagree on how to do that, too.

Vukmir emphasized her family's history, noting she is the child of Greek immigrants, as she talked about the process her relatives went through to become U.S. citizens.

"First and foremost I have always said we must build that wall. Once that wall is built … then we can go through a process. But it is a privilege and it is a process," Vukmir said when asked whether she would support a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers — undocumented young people brought into the U.S. as children — in exchange for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

Baldwin said Trump already passed up a chance to accept that deal. 

Vukmir argued the wall is important not just for immigration purposes, but from a public health, human trafficking, drug trafficking and gang activity standpoint.

Baldwin said she supports implementing stronger border security and creating a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.

"We should use the smartest border security possible, and many people say that is not a wall, but rather smart technology," Baldwin said.

3. Should the #MeToo movement lead to federal policy changes? Here's another issue where they disagree.

"What I think that the #MeToo movement has done and said is that we need to speak our truths, we need to tell our stories and we need to be heard. That means due process. That means due process on all sides," Baldwin said. "But it does mean that we have to create an environment and a country where it is OK for people to speak out and tell their truths."

Baldwin said she found the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused newly-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of assaulting her when they were teenagers, to be "credible and compelling." 

"I believe her. But despite the outcome, I don’t want that to silence a whole new generation who I know are scared right now," Baldwin said.

Baldwin said she supports overturning the Supreme Court's Vance v. Ball State University decision, which narrowed the definition of a "supervisor" in claims of workplace harassment. 

Vukmir said she believes the #MeToo movement was hurt by the national debate over Kavanaugh's confirmation and the allegations against him. She also argued against implementing new federal laws related to sexual harassment issues.

She went after Baldwin for declaring her opposition to Kavanaugh without meeting with him.

"The #MeToo movement is important and it was cheapened by her actions and the fact that she wouldn’t even follow through on the due process for Judge Kavanaugh," Vukmir said. "I believe something did happen to Dr. Ford but there was nothing to corroborate and link that to Judge Kavanaugh, and you (Baldwin) didn’t have the decency to even meet with the man."

4. Should the federal government intervene on pay equity issues? Baldwin and Vukmir also disagree on this question.

"Of course I want people to have equal pay for the same jobs that we’re doing, but when we have government coming in and doing it, that’s problematic," Vukmir said.

Vukmir took a swipe at Baldwin, saying women make less than men do in the senator's office. Baldwin said that isn't true.

"Every problem Sen. Baldwin looks at, she believes government has a better answer," Vukmir said, adding that she instead looks to individuals and employers.

Baldwin said she supports the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would add protections to the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Fair Labor Standards Act in an effort to address gender-based pay inequity. 

5. Baldwin and Vukmir couldn't be more diametrically opposed on the issue of abortion rights.

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

Fielding an audience question about late-term abortion, Baldwin didn't talk about that specific procedure. But she gave a firm defense of preserving access to abortion in general, and voiced her opposition to efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.

"I support a woman’s right to choose. I don’t believe that government should interfere with a woman’s health or whether or when she should have a child," Baldwin said. I also believe that my opponent has been at the very extreme of this issue. She has supported legislation that would ban in vitro fertilization, that would ban access to some forms of contraception and would ban stem cell research … so I strongly oppose any limitations like defunding Planned Parenthood … I believe that a woman should make her health care decisions."

Vukmir countered that Baldwin is the one who has taken an extreme position. As a nurse, Vukmir said, she cannot imagine being anything but 100 percent pro-life.

"It is the most disgusting thing that can happen, that the arms and legs are pulled out of a mother, the brains are sucked out," Vukmir said, describing a dilation and evacuation abortion procedure. "You talk about a woman’s right to choose, it’s a woman’s right to kill a baby. That is extreme, Sen. Baldwin."

6. Vukmir says Baldwin failed veterans at the Tomah VA Medical center. Baldwin says Vukmir is politicizing a Marine's death.

"I think about how she turned her back on the veterans at the Tomah VA. It is absolutely disgraceful that for months she sat on a report that she and only she had that detailed the extent to which veterans were being prescribed opioids," Vukmir said.

Baldwin drew scrutiny in 2015 after reports indicated her office responded slowly to complaints that patients at the veterans health center had been prescribed large amounts of opioids.

A staffer, fired from her office, later alleged a political cover-up. Complaints filed over the firing and the office's handling of the issue were dismissed by Senate ethics panels, and Baldwin said she wished her office had done more to follow up on complaints it received from a whistleblower.

"I have to say that I think that Leah Vukmir should be ashamed of herself for using a Marine veteran’s death for her own political gain. When I learned about over-prescribing across the VA system and particularly at Tomah, I worked with that Marine veteran’s family — his widow, his daughter, his parents, to enact Jason’s Law," Baldwin said, referring to legislation that requires VA employees prescribing opioids to be better trained and to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

7. Both Vukmir and Baldwin say they support the Second Amendment. But they differ on how they think further gun violence and mass shootings can be prevented.

"It is tragic what’s been happening, and it’s not just schools that are soft targets. I think about hospitals and medical clinics, I think about newsrooms and I think about universities," Vukmir said.

As a "strong supporter" of the Second Amendment, Vukmir said, she believes local units of government and individuals should be allowed to decide for themselves how best to protect themselves from threats of gun violence.

Vukmir also advocated for stronger sharing methods of mental health information as a means of preventing violence.

Baldwin said she is also a gun owner and a Second Amendment supporter, but said those things don't prevent her from supporting comprehensive background checks for all gun purchases and transfers, a ban on bump stock sales and efforts to crack down on straw purchasing.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.