Republicans Kennedy, Romney square off in Senate primary debate

Scott G Winterton
Utah Senate candidates state Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, left, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney shake hands at the beginning of a Senate Republican primary debate, Tuesday, May 29, 2018, in Provo. (Scott G. Winterton/The Deseret News via AP, Pool)

U.S. Senate candidates Mike Kennedy and Mitt Romney sparred over some of Romney’s past comments about President Donald Trump and pastor Robert Jefress.

Kennedy fired the shot during the highly anticipated primary debate Tuesday night and the criticism turned into a theme for the evening. Much of the conversation streamlined into the big overarching question, where is the line between getting along and standing for something?

Regarding actual policy, the two candidates were civil and agreed on many issues. Their similarities were especially highlighted when discussing health care, immigration and medical marijuana.

Kennedy started the debate by welcoming Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, Romney and his family to Utah. Throughout the debate, Kennedy frequently referenced that he has lived in the Beehive State his entire life, which he said makes him more qualified for the Senate position.

Romney was president and CEO of the organizing committee for the Salt Lake Winter Games in 2002 and has owned a home in Utah for some time.

Kennedy, who gained traction recently for forming a coalition tasked with finding solutions to gun violence in schools, also accused Romney for inconsistent policy positions and for publicly making several polarizing comments against President Donald Trump and pastor Robert Jeffress.

Of Jeffress, Romney said that when people express bigotry — especially against marginalized groups — they should be called out for it.

Romney, who has been vocal about his distaste for some of President Trump’s policies in the past, doubled down and expressed his support for the president when his policies benefit America as a whole.

The former GOP presidential candidate made sure to clarify his standing with President Trump and reminded listeners that the president has in fact endorsed him in his campaign.

“We are going to lose a lot of clout in Washington as Orrin Hatch retires, and no one can ever really replace that clout,” Romney said. And referencing the relationship he has built as a high-ranking political figure, Romney said, “But I do believe that by virtue of the experiences I have had and also by the relationships I have with the White House and with some 40 senators who I have campaigned with Republicans all, I do believe that I’ll be able to help Utah continue to punch above its weight.”

Health care 

Health care and access to health care should be addressed on the state level, not the federal level, Romney said. He went on to criticize the Affordable Healthcare Act, or Obamacare, for taking over the system and preventing Utah from crafting its own personalized policies that work best for the state.

“At the state level, we will be able to make sure we have coverage for people with preexisting conditions. We can expand coverage to make sure that everybody ultimately, has access to insurance,” Romney said.

Romney also added that Utahns should want the general population to get insurance because when uninsured individuals need medical care and are unable to pay for it, the money for the treatment comes from taxpayers.

Kennedy referenced his own experiences working in the health care industry calling it his privilege to serve the people of Utah. “I believe our health care system is an outstanding system unparalleled throughout the world.”

Kennedy, a Utah legislator from Alpine, said he spent time working as an unpaid health care provider in Provo, experience he said makes him equipped to understand Utah’s healthcare needs.

Like Romney, Kennedy said decisions about health care should be made on the state level. Not from federal programs like Obamacare.

“Health care is best delivered by doctors and patients working together,” Kennedy said. “Get third party players and government systems out of the way.”

Taxes and tariffs

“The art of negotiation is something that our chief negotiator is clearly able to work forward on,” Kennedy said, praising President Trump for his work on issues like taxes and global trade.

Romney said he thinks it is important to recognize Utah as a state that sells more abroad than it buys abroad.

The multi-billion dollar trade deficit with China is the biggest trade issue, and according to Romney, China cheats in its dealing with the United States by stealing America’s ideas and taking advantage of the nation by manipulating money.

Romney said he applauds President Trump for getting tough on China and other economies seeking to do the United States harm.

Both candidates expressed no interest in a trade war.

Gun violence

Romney said he stands against the creation of new, federal gun laws, however he does support enhanced background checks, something he insisted President Trump has also called for. Romney is also for a ban on “bump stocks” — a device that enables semi-automatic weapons to fire faster — to the general public.

“Our young people shouldn’t have to worry about going to school,” Romney said regarding school shootings. “And parents shouldn’t have to worry about losing a child. It is unthinkable.”

One solution he offered was the idea that school campuses should be more like banks and have armed personnel, limit entry to the public, medical detectors and a skilled intervention team on hand ready to act when individuals pose a threat.

Kennedy said it is important to find the perpetrators and stop the violence before it happens. Along with this comes the need to better the mental health care system and make sure individuals who pose potential threat get access to needed medical treatment.

“It is quite clear to me that it is not the gun that fires itself. It is the person behind the gun,” Kennedy said, adding that he did not believe bump stocks should be pulled from the market.

While both candidates agreed community and state solutions are the best way to prevent gun violence, Kennedy critiqued Romney for signing an assault-weapons ban during his time as governor of Massachusetts.

“It’s just hard for me to know as our U.S. senator what you’ll do regarding this and other issues,” Kennedy said referring to the ban Romney signed.

Romney countered the accusation by pointing out he signed the bill after opposing parties in the state came together to create the piece of legislation. Romney then expressed his support for the community finding common ground in bipartisan issues.

Medical marijuana

Romney and Kennedy’s views on medical marijuana align. Both Republicans said they would vote against the November ballot initiative for the legalization of medicinal marijuana, however they agree something similar is needed.

Romney said the proposed legislation would open the door to corner stores selling marijuana-laced products. He voiced his support for a system with more accountability instead. One in which patients would be required to receive an actual subscription from an actual doctor.

Kennedy said he supports access to medicinal marijuana for those who need it. However, as a health care provider, Kennedy said he values research, which is why — until he learns more — Kennedy said he will be refraining from supporting any large-scale changes.


Kennedy referenced his own status as a first-generation American when talking about immigration. The Republican said he appreciates the opportunity and access he was given to the American Dream, however the process needs to be done legally.

“Our president made a promise. His promise was I will build a wall and we will make our borders secure. I stand with the president in keeping that promise,” Kennedy said.

Legal immigration needs to be possible, and it needs to be the more enticing option when compared to the illegal alternative, he added.

Like Kennedy, Romney said illegal immigration needs to stop and this can happen through physical barriers and systems like e-verify, which is designed to keep businesses from hiring individuals who are in the country illegally.

Kennedy took the opportunity to fire a shot at Romney over a comment he made during his presidential campaign regarding immigration.

“I thought I remembered in the presidential campaign something about self-deportation. But that’s fine. I guess that opinion has changed as well,” Kennedy said.

Romney responded by referencing his earlier comment about e-verify. The Republican said his statement in 2012 simply meant the federal program would hold businesses accountable for hiring illegal workers, which means they would be dissuaded in doing so.

Ideally then the illegal immigrants would leave the country on their own accord. Romney said that is what he meant when he used the word “self decider.”

Romney and Kennedy are contending to win the June 26 Republican primary election. The winner will then run against Democrat Jenny Wilson in the November election.

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