DALLAS (AP) — Two Democratic U.S. Senate hopefuls long overshadowed by the high-priced, high-profile Republican primary argued Tuesday that they deserve voters' attention, even though Texas hasn't elected a Democrat statewide in two decades.
Paul Sadler and Grady Yarbrough took the stage at public television station KERA's Dallas studios. The men have similar views supporting the national health-care overhaul, same-sex marriage and limiting changes to Social Security.
But Sadler questioned Yarbrough's lack of legislative experience, while Yarbrough said his proposals would do more for the poor and working class.
Sadler, a 57-year-old attorney who served 12 years in the Texas House, and Yarbrough, a 75-year-old schoolteacher and perennial candidate, were the top two finishers in Texas' May 29 primary. They will face off July 31 in a runoff.
Sadler said former President George W. Bush once ribbed him for his independence from both parties.
"I have a history in the Legislature as a problem solver," Sadler said. "We need to send our very best problem solvers, people who can work together, to solve those issues."
Yarbrough said his policy ideas included a "50-50" plan to provide jobs for low-wage workers that he suggested would be more effective than President Barack Obama's stimulus plan.
"I think I have some ideas to get our economy going, to put people back to work, and I'm anxious to put those ideas forward," he said. "It's true. We haven't won a statewide race in quite some time. Maybe this is the time."
The debate had a few heated moments, including when Yarbrough answered a question about border security by invoking the Berlin Wall.
"I hate to refer to this, but as you recall, the Berlin Wall was put up in 1961, and it was pretty effective," Yarbrough said. "Now if we have to use a method that is similar to the Berlin Wall, then I think we have to do that. I think we have to use whatever method is at our disposal to securing our border."
Sadler strongly criticized the suggestion.
"I'm not a wall builder," he said. "I don't think a fence works. I think the very idea that we would take a Berlin Wall-type scenario and stick it on our border is offensive."
Sadler also declined to ask Yarbrough a question when offered the chance by moderators, saying he had nothing to ask. Yarbrough said after the debate that he thought Sadler was being "self-serving."
Sadler also said he considered only three candidates who ran this year qualified to be a senator — himself and two Republicans, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert. Dewhurst and former Solicitor General Ted Cruz are competing in the Republican runoff; Leppert finished third in last month's primary.
Yarbrough has not set up a campaign website but made it to a runoff largely because his name is similar to 1960s-era icon and former U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough. He wasn't the first to benefit from the last name. Don Yarbrough was elected to the Texas Supreme Court in 1976 amid similar confusion and was forced to resign nine months later amid criminal allegations.
Both Sadler and Yarbrough said they considered Social Security to be safe in the short term but would consider some changes to preserve its long-term future. Congressional Budget Office projections from last year said the trust fund that supports Social Security disability will run out of money by 2017 unless Congress acts. The much larger retirement fund was projected to run out of money by 2040, leaving the system unable to pay full benefits.
Sadler and Yarbrough said they would potentially support limiting Social Security checks for wealthier people, known as means-testing. Yarbrough said he was "open" to eventually raising the eligibility age for benefits.
Both men also spoke favorably of the health-care overhaul blasted by Republicans. Yarbrough said the controversial mandate to buy health insurance "provides a protection for the little guy." Sadler said many parts of the act "are very good for us as consumers, as individuals, as human beings."
Dewhurst has loaned more than $10 million from the fortune he made with his energy company, and Cruz has benefited from millions in spending from Club for Growth and other conservative groups. Neither Democrat has raised more than a small fraction of that.
Sadler said he had spent about $90,000 so far from donations and asked Texans to give $10 each to his campaign to counterbalance Republican spending. Yarbrough said he had withdrawn about $80,000 from personal annuity funds.
KERA is scheduled to show the debate Wednesday at 7 p.m.