The first Senate debate between Republican Marsha Blackburn and Democrat Phil Bredesen focused on a political back and forth — whether the Tennessee race would determine who ultimately leads the chamber.
But the candidates also commented on several issues directly affecting Tennesseans, including the closure of hospitals across the state and gun rights.
Here are three issues from Tuesday’s debate at Cumberland University in which the candidates showed their differences.
On rural hospitals
Hospitals in rural areas of Tennessee have been closing at an alarming rate. By most counts, only Texas has had more since Tennessee lawmakers declined to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Blackburn proposes dealing with the problem by equipping rural clinics with high-speed internet so they can better serve patients through telemedicine and remote monitoring.
“That is something we are currently working on so that that is going to be available,” Blackburn said. “We have over 200 community health centers in our state. This is a really good program — it helps get health care to these communities.”
Bredesen said he believes the state should’ve gone with Medicaid expansion. He also said the future of rural clinics depends on urban hospitals partnering up with them to share resources, talent and facilities.
On gun rights
Blackburn boasted of her A-rating from the National Rifle Association. She said she is the candidate that is fighting for the freedoms of Tennesseans, including the right to bear arms.
“Tenneseans know that we can protect the Second Amendment and continue to protect our people,” Blackburn said. “They know that taking away gun rights and putting in place gun control is not going to be something that makes our communities safer.”
Bredesen tried to position himself as a supporter of the Second Amendment, recalling how he got a .22 long rifle for his 16th birthday. He said he is for gun rights, but called for background checks as a way to keep communities safer.
“I also believe that one of the ways you preserve these rights is to put reasonable rules in place so that they are excercised in a reasonable way,” Bredesen said.
On legalizing medical marijuana
Both candidates were asked about the opioid epidemic and about the possibility of legalizing medical marijuana as a way to tackle the issue. Neither candidate answered the question on stage, but both were asked again after the debate.
Bredesen said he supports changing the federal classification of marijuana so that research can be done on the drug. He said legalizing medical marijuana is ultimately a decision to be made by the states, calling it a “fundamentally state issue.”
WPLN reached out to Blackburn’s campaign for her position. Abbi Siegler, a spokeswoman with Blackburn’s campaign, said in an email that the the congressman is “open to medical cannabis.”
“Drug addiction affects crime. … It’s breaking families apart and devastating our communities,” the statement read. “Marsha believes legalizing drugs would be a mistake, but would be open to medical cannabis.”