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Who won? An analysis of the U.S. Senate Debate

Members of Pacific's speech and debate team
From left to right: Jonathan Bruce as Ron Unz, Kayla Gerdes as Duf Sundheim, Dallas Phillips as Kamala Harris, Megan Chatelain as Tom Del Beccaro, Erika Juaregui as Loretta Sanchez


This year, our team was relatively young with lots of freshman and sophomore competitors; this can be both a strength and weakness. Younger debaters new to the game can often be fearless and debate with a kind of recklessness that endears them to their teammates and the community; on the other hand, when they debate people that are ranked higher or have more experience, those nerves manifest as recklessness that hurts their credibility. As a coach, my job is to guide those nerves in productive ways and hope that they grow DURING the debate, not just afterwards through reflection.


Monday night's U.S. Senate debate at Pacific was a perfect example of these moments. The clear front runner, Kamala Harris, demonstrated why she is ranked higher and was expected to win the debate-she exudes poise, character, experience, and credibility. On the other hand, some of the "younger" debaters are still new to the voters and campaigns for this Senate seat debated with a recklessness that, when controlled, could endear themselves to voters (Unz and Sundheim) and when out of control likely caught the attention of voters but hurt their credibility overall (Sanchez and Del Beccarro). As the campaigns continue, it will be imperative that their respective campaigns coach them in a way that harnesses their passion while also helping them be fearless in their approach. Below is my analysis of the debate and the grades earned by each candidate.

The candidates from the 2016 U.S. Senate Debate
From left to right: Tom Del Beccaro, Kamala Harris, Duf Sundheim, Loretta Sanchez, Ron Unz

Kamala Harris- Debating as the front runner, the current Attorney General of California demonstrated the policy positions, poise, and character that have pushed her to the front of the polls. When discussing bipartisanship, she noted that she would work to reach across the aisle and pointed to times she already had. On the economy and immigration she gave direct, specific answers about her goals of raising the minimum wage, providing universal child care, Pre-K, and kindergarten education while also addressing them as civil and human rights issue that need comprehensive reform. Finally, when asked a personal question about her responses in crisis she provided the best line of the night when she referred to herself as courageous, but not reckless. Indeed, she demonstrated that focused courage when responding to attacks from Del Beccaro about her support of decriminalization for drugs. Harris was poised and pointed to work against recidivism as a model for the country. Her answers on foreign policy went off track and were not specific, as was pointed out by the moderators. This hurt her because as a Senator she will need to be more informed about foreign policy issues, especially given the answers of her competitors. Still, overall she was the evening's best candidate on multiple topics and demonstrated her courage under fire, without recklessness. A-

Ron Unz- A newer candidate to the race, Ron Unz entered the debate leading his Republican peers in the polls even without an early campaign start. It is hard to say whether this debate will make a difference in Unz's campaign; however, of all the candidates, Mr. Unz might have helped his prospects the most. He was direct in all of his responses, an important distinction given the elongated answers of his colleagues. On the economy he called for targeted minimum wages, an end to funneling money towards corporate elites, and in terms of college affordability, he called for an end to administrative bloat. He was focused on his specific policies and was willing to be a bit reckless in terms of defying other people and public perception. He literally noted, with a straight face, that illegal immigration is not at all high and instead pushed to crack down on legal immigration. He also boldly noted that gun control does not make a difference, either way, on crime. These type of bold and direct answers certainly should endear himself to voters who are just becoming familiar with his intelligent, direct, fearless, and albeit a bit reckless style. Easily sounding the smartest by citing studies succinctly, Ron Unz has positioned himself to potentially overtake everybody but Kamala Harris before the runoff deadline; however, he has publicly stated he is not running to win. Still, if the evening's performance was any indication, he might have to reconsider after the elections in November. B+

Duf Sundheim- A relatively unknown candidate, Sundheim spent most of the debate doing an excellent job alerting the public to the specifics of his policies but probably left many asking questions about his beliefs and values. Each time he was asked a question he had a specific answer that differentiated him from his competitors. Unfortunately, his lack of character and his inability to speak to his values meant that many probably felt underwhelmed and unexcited by him. This is most likely because although he is running as a Republican, many of his positions align with Democratic ideals.  Pro-choice, Pro-marriage equality, and Pro-social safety nets for women and minorities, Sundheim had a hard time clarifying for voters why he is a Republican when asked by the moderators. Still, his other answers were direct, distinguished, and fearless as he took different positions on the topics than his competitors. Instead of the minimum wage raise, he called for an increase to the Earned Income Tax Credit (a favorite counterplan of our team when we have to debate the topic). Instead of decreasing the cost of education, he said that student loans should be dischargeable in bankruptcy. In terms of foreign policy, he referenced the tripartite policies of the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and NATO as a combined strategy for foreign leadership and he called for a path to legal status but not citizenship for immigration reform. Even though he had the best policy proposals of the night that clearly reflect views of both Republicans and Democrats, he did not move the meter much because he did not connect with voters values and beliefs. B-

Tom Del Beccaro- The presumptive Republican favorite, Del Beccaro got a lot of public support following the debate, but I would venture to guess it was not new folks invigorated by Del Beccaro's performance. This is because his responses were vastly underwhelming in terms of both character and policy positions. He did a great job sticking to his talking points but his talking points often sounded weak and unresponsive. On bipartisanship, he did nothing to answer the question, show he would reach across the aisle, and simply said that we are in a divided era because of governmental leaders, you know, like those in the Senate where he is running for office. On the economy, he started well with his talking points about letting the economy grow, but then his answer became convoluted and confusing as he tried to describe studies and statistics that came out as a jumbled mess. He did do extremely well on questions of foreign policy and national security concerns, but too often he pivoted to either "big government" or "weak leadership" without providing a specific response to any of his competitors. To make matters worse, he attacked the front runner, Kamala Harris, on planned parenthood and immigration, but did not provide any specifics making him sound petty and simply taking off topic shots. Like a young debater who knows their position but cannot adapt throughout the debate, he failed to remain relevant on the stage throughout the evening and Del Beccaro further failed to distinguish himself to new voters looking for a strong Republican leader. Still, he probably did a good job to solidify the voters already siding with him in the election. C

Loretta Sanchez- The biggest loser of the evening was the woman who was in second place coming into the evening's debate. Rep. Sanchez was new to many people and she committed many of the same flaws my newer debaters commit when they are on a bigger stage-they say more than they should without reaching the compelling position before the timer goes off. Rep. Sanchez's fearless responses were often too brash, long-winded, and distracting. Her responses to questions about bipartisanship, foreign policy, and immigration all lacked specificity, came across as combative, and she managed to go over time before she concluded her remarks. The fact that she was continually prompted by the moderators that her time was up hurt her credibility throughout the debate. She was the best on the discussion of education, pushing her unique stance on community colleges, but even then she corrected the moderator who was trying to prompt her position in his question! Too often, her answers started strong, went too long, and lost focus towards the end of her arguments. It resembled a debater trying to hard to win a debate they already understood themselves to be outclassed in. Her final statement exemplified her debate overall: she began strong and passionate about her generational success with her and her sister both becoming members of Congress from a family of immigrants, which would have been a strong finish; but then, she pivoted to a story about an armed service member who had been injured in Iraq and was being mistreated and had to rush to make her point about the story because she was being cut-off by the moderator. D