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CHEYENNE — Republican candidates vying to become Wyoming’s next U.S. senator discussed their stances on a wide range of issues, including the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, health care reform and protests against racism, during a two-part forum in July in Sheridan.

The forum, which was organized by Wyoming PBS, the Sheridan Press and Wyoming Public Radio, came about a month ahead of the state’s Aug. 18 primary, though early and absentee voting had already started.

The forum was split into two segments, with five of the candidates featured in the first hour and the other four featured in the second part of the discussion.

While some of their opinions overlapped, the candidates made distinctive points on several issues.

Though some of their specific solutions varied, the Republican candidates were in widespread agreement that private industry needed to remain the primary driver of America’s health care system.

The candidates opposed government-run health care, arguing a public system would be ineffective.

Josh Wheeler, a Wyoming Army National Guard veteran, compared a public health care system to the existing Veterans Affairs system, which he said sometimes fails its clients.

“What makes them think that a federally based system could actually take care of the whole populace?” Wheeler asked.

Candidates pointed to existing programs as potential solutions that should be expanded.

Donna Rice, a Casper attorney, mentioned her support for expanded medical cost-sharing plans, which are largely run by faith-based groups and allow people to enter into shared medical accounts.

Others, including retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bryan Miller, mentioned the need to improve competition across state lines to lower premiums.

“That can only be done if the federal government gets out of the way and allows states to pick that up,” Miller added.

Former Rep. Cynthia Lummis, the only candidate with previous experience in Congress, said she would immediately co-sponsor a bill from U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, aiming to lower the cost of prescription drugs and increase price transparency in health care.

Federal COVID-19 response

During the first hour of the forum, the group of candidates agreed that Wyoming, which is facing a projected $1.5 billion deficit over the next two years, should not be allowed to use federal relief money to balance its budget.

Candidate Michael Kemler, of Lander, said he would support a low-interest loan program for businesses at the federal level but cautioned against adding to the federal debt.

In reference to the stimulus package being debated in Congress, Lummis backed the Senate’s $1 trillion proposal, rather than the House’s package that totals roughly $3 trillion.

Rice, meanwhile, said the stimulus packages are starting to become unproductive, emphasizing the need for all proposals to focus on getting people back to work.

Robert Short, a Converse County commissioner, highlighted his help in responding to the pandemic, saying he worked with the county health officer to institute shutdown exceptions for some businesses.

“We put in place measures to mitigate, to allow for a safe, operational scenario that continued to afford people the opportunity to make an income and contribute to our local economy,” Short said. “That’s leadership.”

Star Roselli, an Arizona-based candidate seeking the seat, warned of a longer economic recovery from COVID-19 and emphasized the country’s rising debt as an issue that needs to be addressed immediately.

The national debt “is going to continue to be raised until more of us like-minded who are very responsible fiscally will stop that process,” Roselli said. “It’s a runaway train.”

Laramie candidate John Holtz said the crisis has prompted a scattered response at different levels of government and emphasized the need “to enforce the law, be it local, state or federal.”

Addressing racism

Candidates were asked about the protests against systemic racism and police brutality that have recently occurred across Wyoming and the nation.

The candidates were largely reluctant to embrace the term “systemic racism” when asked about it by a panelist.

Lummis said that “people should be judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin,” though she added there is racism in pockets of the U.S.

Racism “happens individual to individual,” Lummis said. “It doesn’t happen because our government proclaims that there shall be no racism. This is a personal issue that we each need to take to heart and address in our own families, our own homes and our own communities.”

R. Mark Armstrong, a candidate from Albany County, said the protests have highlighted the need for people to feel their government leaders actually represent them.

“I think a lot of this stems from the idea that these people on both sides don’t feel like they have representation,” Armstrong said. “I’ve run an environmental company as a conservative for 30 years. I can reach across that aisle and shake people’s hand and say, ‘We can fix this.’”

Others mentioned slightly more personal encounters with racism. Rice said her son has two black friends who they’ve traveled with, “and I’ve seen and experienced the looks and some of the things that they are frustrated with.”

“I believe that the answer to right racism is not from Congress,” Rice added. “It is in our hearts.”

Short emphasized the need for civility amid discussions on race: “We have to have the understanding that differing points of view do not make enemies. We all pledge allegiance to the same flag, and we have to realize that one size does not fit all across our great country.”

Contact Managing Editor Rebecca Huntington at 732-7078 or rebecca@jhnewsandguide.com.

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