ASHLAND — In what often felt more like a dueling campaign rally, Republican Congressman Bob Gibbs and Democrat challenger Ken Harbaugh traded zingers Monday in their first and only debate in the race for 7th Congressional District.
Harbaugh portrayed Gibbs as a politician beholden to corporate donors who has voted against protecting pre-existing conditions 13 times. Gibbs claimed Harbaugh is a socialist, whose campaign is backed by “Hollywood money” and donors from out-of-state.
Gibbs talked up the economy, giving credit to a recent spurt in economic growth and spending to Trump’s tax cuts. Harbaugh promised to protect pre-existing conditions and highlighted his service as a U.S. Navy pilot on such issues as national defense.
At the debate, held on the campus of Ashland University, the two candidates had three minutes to answer five questions, with 30 seconds for rebuttal. The audience got its share of that time as well, going beyond an admonition to refrain from applause to heckle, laugh and yell. Harbaugh’s statement that Gibbs “votes with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan 99 percent of the time” brought cheers from the Gibbs crowd and boos from Harbaugh’s. The two men entered the room accompanied by chants of “Gibbs Gibbs Gibbs” and “Go Ken Harbaugh.”
On the economy and the growing federal deficit, Harbaugh said the Trump tax cuts have saddled every American family with $23,000 in debt. Harbaugh said growing the economy can be addressed through an infrastructure bill, and further investment in education and high speed Internet. Harbaugh said wages have not kept up with inflation.
Gibbs said recent economic gains, including increases in spending and economic growth, were caused by the Trump tax cuts. He said the tax bill is helping families by putting more money in their pockets.
On health care, Gibbs said increased competition in markets and getting rid of exchanges will bring down costs. Gibbs said Congress tried to get protection for pre-existing conditions in an amendment of the Affordable Care Act and said he believes people should not lose coverage if they get sick.
Harbaugh’s pledge to protect pre-existing conditions and affordable health care is a centerpiece of his campaign. He said the health insurance markets need stabilized by funding ACA exchanges. He supports early Medicare buy-ins, and he “encourage(s) access to the” Federal Employee Health Care Benefit for young people.
Answering a question about education and college debt, Harbaugh called college debt “epic” and said more investment is needed in schools. He said half of Ohio schools are deteriorating, many lack air conditioning, and class sizes are too large. He attacked Congress’s decision to cut a $250 tax credit for teachers to defray costs of out-of-pocket expenses.
Gibbs answered that the tax credit was cut “because we lowered everybody’s taxes,” implying that the Trump tax cuts made up for the loss of the credit in dollar terms. Gibbs said schools need to be controlled, and curriculum designed, at the local and state level. Gibbs talked up vocational training, claiming that college tuition costs are up because of competition from vocation schools which “are doing a better job” providing education for jobs that pay more.
On national security, Harbaugh said Congress needs more veterans who understand the price of war to prevent further “misadventures,” including the on-going commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Harbaugh said Iraq and Afghanistan, as “existential threats,” pose the biggest security problems.
Gibbs said sanctions on North Korea and Iran are working and “are making the world safer” and that “hopefully, we will never have to use our awesome forces, but it’s one heck of a deterrent.” He said “tough sanctions” are necessary and the U.S. “can’t be a patsy.”
Gibbs said the opioid crisis “as has been reported, we think its starting to level off” due to the $11 billion distributed to the states through the bipartisan Care Act.
Harbaugh called the opioid epidemic “a full-blown crisis” and the $11 billion, “spread across to 50 states … is a drop in the bucket.” He said the Care Act has to be “funded.”
Between talking points, the two men got in their digs.
Gibbs was called out by Harbaugh for a comment in a news story in which he said members of Congress faced dangers similar to soldiers. Harbaugh stopped his comments on national security to “yield my time to give (Gibbs) a chance to apologize to the 50,000 veterans in this district” for the comment.
“There is no comparison to that and I truly honor and respect that service,” Gibbs said. “The thought that crossed my mind, when I said members of congress face dangers too, I should never have said it … I stopped right there, I said this is not a joke, I’m not joking, he’s trying to make a political play on that.”
Harbaugh asked Gibbs if his taking PAC money from insurance companies “begs the question, sir, if there is anything in your office that is not for sale?” Gibbs said “my opponent has the democrat talking points down really well.”
Gibbs’ closing statements were almost drowned out by Harbaugh supporters, who cried out “no!” to Gibbs’ question of “are you better off now than two years ago?” Gibbs’ own supporters gave him a dig when he accidentally said “President Obama” when talking about Trump on drug addiction treatment centers.
In reply to criticism from Harbaugh that no one has seen Gibbs in the district, Gibbs said he is out in the district “contrary to what my opponent says.” He said Harbaugh must have missed it because he was traveling “to Los Angeles trying to raise money.”
Harbaugh supporters broke in on Gibbs as he spoke about the Care Act. Gibbs seemed to address Harbaugh above the noise and said that Harbaugh’s “campaign constituents” were heckling him. Harbaugh said “they are your constituents … (you) represent both sides of this aisle.”
Moderators for the debate were Jeff Sikkenga, Ashland University professor of political science, and Brad Dicken, Elyria Chronical-Telegram editorial page editor. An estimated 500 people turned out for the debate.