SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — The first debate of the tight U.S. House race in eastern Washington state Wednesday night produced differences over campaign finance, gun control and even the age of the Earth.
Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Democratic challenger Lisa Brown debated in Spokane, the largest city in the 5th Congressional District. They plan several more debates in October.
The free-wheeling debate lasted more than an hour in front of a packed house of 700 people at the Bing Crosby Theater.
The candidates both agreed early-on that they would not support cuts to the Medicare or Social Security programs.
“We need to strengthen and expand Medicare,” Brown said, while noting that McMorris Rodgers in the past had voted for measures that would have led to cuts in both programs.
“I don’t support cutting Medicare or Social Security,” McMorris Rodgers replied.
Regarding veterans, McMorris Rodgers noted that she had voted for the largest budget in the history of the Veterans Administration, in part because her offices receive 30 to 40 phone calls a week from veterans seeking help.
Brown said those phone calls were proof “the system isn’t working” for veterans.
Brown said she opposed to use of so-called dark money, which is unlimited spending from outside campaign supporters on behalf of candidates. But McMorris Rodgers said the only recipient of dark money in this race appeared to be Brown.
McMorris Rodgers wondered who was paying for some television attack ads that benefited Brown. “Maybe George Soros?” McMorris Rodgers offered, invoking a longtime Democratic backer.
Asked if the sale of weapons such as AR-15 assault rifles should be banned, McMorris Rodgers said she was a supporter of the Second Amendment and did not believe law-abiding citizens should have their rights restricted.
“We need to ensure those weapons do not get into the hands of those who should not have had them,” McMorris Rodgers said.
Brown said she also supported the Second Amendment, but added that “assault-style weapons need to be strictly regulated.”
There were a series of questions from the audience, including one in which the candidates were asked how old they believed the Earth was.
“The account I believe is the one in the Bible,” McMorris Rodgers said.
Brown said she believed in science, but didn’t provide a specific age.
An audience member asked if Brown was a supporter of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
Brown, a college professor who taught at a Jesuit university in Nicaragua for a time in the 1990s, said she could not support someone with a record of human rights abuses.
But McMorris Rodgers said she had questions about Brown’s time in Nicaragua.
“She was down there and she did not support U.S. policy down there,” McMorris Rodgers contended. “I have a lot of concerns about somebody who thinks going down and supporting socialist dictators is part of the solution.”
The debate was sponsored by The Spokesman-Review newspaper and KHQ-TV.
McMorris Rodgers is the highest ranking Republican woman in the House and is seeking an eighth term. She is facing perhaps the toughest challenge since she won the open seat in 2004 in Brown, a former long-time state lawmaker.
McMorris Rodgers won 49 percent of the vote in the August primary, compared to 45 percent for Brown. The remaining 6 percent of the votes went to conservative candidates.
There have been no independent polls on the race released since the primary.
McMorris Rodgers leads in fundraising, but Brown has already raised far more than the incumbent’s previous challengers.
Brown is seeking to become the first Democrat elected to represent the 5th since House Speaker Tom Foley was ousted in 1994′s “Republican Revolution.”
On Wednesday, McMorris Rodgers released a new television ad blaming Brown for steep tuition increases at state colleges that occurred while she was a legislative leader. The Republican has also said Brown more recently made a $364,000 salary as chancellor of Washington State University’s Spokane campus.
For her part, Brown has highlighted her contributions to creating a new medical school at WSU Spokane.
McMorris Rodgers is the fourth-ranking member of the U.S. House and is the only House member to ever give birth three times while in office.