House, Senate candidates dodge questions on hot-button issues

Candidates for Senate and House seats are refusing to say how they would vote on key issues facing Congress, claiming they shouldn’t have to make up their minds until after they’re elected.

It’s a major leap of faith being requested of voters: Give me your vote and send me to Washington, but don’t expect answers about how I’ll vote once I get there.

Faced with specific questions about how they would vote on hot-button issues, most candidates dodge a direct answer, deploying rehearsed replies about how they’re still weighing the issue or how a piece of legislation has both pluses and minuses.

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But a few more brazen candidates have offered blanket rebuttals, arguing they can’t be bothered to keep up with everything going on in Congress while they’re still campaigning in their districts — although they are likely to face questions on such issues during candidate debates.

“I don’t know that that flies,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Your goal is to be in the House or Senate. These candidates would all say they want to hit the ground running. Part of that is understanding what’s going on.”

Two years after a GOP wave in which 63 Democratic-held districts switched hands, Republicans are playing defense in the House, so most of the challengers this year are Democrats. It’s the opposite in the Senate, where there are more Democratic incumbents up for reelection, and consequently more GOP challengers whose records are sparse.

Republicans also note that Democrats control the agenda in the Senate, so questions directed to GOP candidates are often about the Democrats’ wish list.

“If Democratic strategists think this election is going to come down to a challenger not taking a position on a particular piece of legislation over their party’s failed economic record, then they are smoking something,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh.

But Democrats say bad policy makes for bad politics, and that policies pushed by Republicans in Congress have made it difficult for their own candidates to go on the record and still get elected. 

“The Republican platform is so extreme and toxic that even their own candidates don’t want to touch it,” said Shripal Shah of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Here are some examples of races where candidates are dodging questions on the issues of the day:


Ohio Senate — Republican Josh Mandel

The state treasurer in Ohio, Mandel has given little indication about how he would vote on a range of issues, a luxury that his opponent, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), doesn’t have. When The Hill asked Mandel in March whether he would support Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget and its Medicaid provisions, Mandel pivoted to an attack on Brown and gave no direct answer.

 Asked about sanctions on China for currency manipulation — a major issue in manufacturing-heavy Ohio — Mandel’s spokesman, Joe Aquilino, told Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer in December not to expect detailed answers.

“For the next year, we’re not going to pretend like he’s there [in the Senate] and voting on every bill that’s introduced or that’s on the floor,” Aquilino said.


Missouri Senate — Republican Sarah Steelman

 The front-running Republican vying to take on Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Steelman was asked at a campaign event last week about the Violence Against Women Act, which the Senate and House are preparing to reauthorize.

“I’m not sure what that is, because I’m not serving right now,” Steelman replied in a video circulated by Democrats.

Steelman’s campaign later clarified that she supports preventing violence against women, just not the Senate Democratic version in its current draft.


North Dakota Senate —Democrat Heidi Heitkamp

A centrist Democrat running for an open seat in a conservative-leaning state, Heitkamp has worked to distance herself from President Obama, whom Democrats acknowledge stands little chance of winning North Dakota. When she entered the race in November, she was hesitant initially about getting into the weeds on policy issues until she had a chance to establish herself in the race.

“There will be a lot of months ahead to talk about the details,” she told the Great Plains Examiner in late January.

Heitkamp continues to refuse to take a solid position on Obama’s healthcare law.


Florida Senate — Republican Connie Mack

Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) is already in the House and has to vote on major issues when they come before Congress.

But Mack, who is running for Sen. Bill Nelson’s (D-Fla.) seat in the upper chamber, had little to say about whether Congress should extend current student interest rates before they double on July 1.

“If you don’t mind, Chuck, I want to talk about what’s happening here in the state of Florida,” Mack told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd on Tuesday. 

Reminded by Todd that Mack would have to vote on the issue in Congress, Mack again changed the subject.

“Wait, wait, wait, but what I’m telling you, in the state of Florida during this Senate campaign, people are concerned about their homes and jobs,” Mack said. “That is the issue.”


Iowa House — Democrat Christie Vilsack 

The wife of Agriculture secretary and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), Christie Vilsack is working to unseat Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and has a curious stance on discussing her political positions: If she wasn’t in Congress when it happened, she didn’t have a position on it.

“I don’t go back and try to figure out what I would have voted for,” Vilsack told the Ames Tribune when asked about Obama’s healthcare law.

Vilsack gave the same answer to the Rothenberg Report on raising the debt ceiling, free trade agreements and even the Civil Rights Act.


New York House — Republican Maggie Brooks

The county executive in Rochester’s Monroe County, Brooks is challenging Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who was drawn into a less favorable area by redistricting. But Brooks’s campaign rollout has been panned by those in her district — including her hometown newspaper — who claim she has refused to share her views on key issues.

“Yes, she recites her mantra about creating more jobs and reducing taxes, which served her well as a local leader,” read an April editorial in the Democrat and Chronicle. “But as a congresswoman, she’d be expected to weigh in on a wide range of national and international issues.”