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WESTVILLE — Health care took center stage in the U.S. Senate debate Monday.

Incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., stressed repeatedly that he cast the deciding vote on Republicans’ attempt to overturn Obamacare.

“I was the final vote to save health care,” Donnelly said.

Republican Mike Braun stressed his record in driving down insurance costs at his auto parts company.

“When you have a leader … you can hold premiums flat for the past 10 years,” Braun said.

Libertarian Lucy Brenton said government shouldn’t be in the health care business.

Donnelly stressed the need to protect coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. He asked Braun to speak against the GOP’s Texas v. United States lawsuit, which challenges the Affordable Care Act, including coverage for pre-existing conditions.

Braun said he would never oppose guaranteeing coverage for pre-existing conditions in any replacement of Obamacare, but he didn’t answer Donnelly’s question about that lawsuit.

On the issues

Mike Dugan, a student at the University of Notre Dame, asked the candidates about their position on abortion.

Braun said he is endorsed by major pro-life organizations.

“I’m a pro-life senator,” Donnelly said. He has made sure federal funds were never used for abortion services, he said, but it’s also important “for our moms, for our sisters, for our wives and our daughters” to have exceptions for rape, incest and saving a mother’s life.

“It’s the family’s decision with their pastor” when the mother’s life is threatened, Donnelly said.

“If we don’t protect the smallest, most vulnerable people, then we’re on a downward slide to euthanasia,” Brenton said.

Donnelly repeatedly stressed his success in passing right-to-try legislation that allows patients facing terminal illness to obtain unapproved drugs in the hope that it might save their lives.

President Donald Trump praised him for pushing that legislation, Donnelly noted.

Braun said anyone would have voted for that common-sense legislation. But Donnelly follows the marching orders of Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on other issues, Braun said.

“I go against my own party all the time,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly said he voted with Trump 62 percent of the time, including voting for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

Donnelly opposed Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, saying he lacked the judicial temperament and displayed partisanship during the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing.

Braun called Donnelly “wrong on almost everything, including Judge Kavanaugh.”

“We’re not there as a copy machine. We’re there to be a help to President Trump to make the best decisions,” Donnelly said.

“Just because we’re women doesn’t mean we’re automatically telling the truth,” Brenton said.

“I would have been no from Day One” because of Kavanaugh’s record of jurisprudence, she said.

Kandice Cole, a warehouse supervisor from Wheatfield, asked about views on gun control.

“I believe in the Second Amendment, but I also believe with rights come responsibilities,” Donnelly said.

He supports stopping the gun show loophole, which allows same-day purchases, and restricting sales to felons and others who might be a threat.

“If you’re on a terrorist watch list, you can still get a gun,” he said.

“I'm going to be for anything that proves effective to keep the guns out of the hands of criminals,” Braun said, but he wants to see evidence before enacting any gun control.

Brenton said she and her husband keep their guns locked.

“We shouldn’t have to have laws to do this. This is common sense,” she said.

Lisa Kovacs, of Portage, a technology specialist with the registrar's office at Purdue University Northwest in Hammond, asked about student debt.

“One of the first things we can do is protect our Pell Grants," Donnelly said. 

Braun praised Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, who froze tuition by keeping an eye on purchasing and benefits, and trying to get students to receive a four-year degree in three years.

Brenton said government should get out of the education business.

On the offensive

Donnelly and Braun directed their criticism toward each other, often making the same point repeatedly.

“It’s going to be an awfully long evening if we just sit here and listen to them recite their commercials back and forth between each other,” Brenton said.

The debate was sponsored by the nonpartisan Indiana Debate Commission. The candidates will face off again Oct. 30 in Indianapolis.

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Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.