Raleigh, N.C. — The two sitting U.S. House members who are vying for the 2nd Congressional District seat went at each other furiously Thursday night in their only debate before the June 7 primary.
Incumbent 2nd District Congresswoman Renee Ellmers, Congressman George Holding, whose 13th District was shifted west of Greensboro after federal judges ordered state lawmakers to redraw North Carolina's congressional voting map, and Dr. Greg Brannon, a Cary obstetrician and failed U.S. Senate candidate, are vying for the Republican nomination for the November general election.
In the hour-long debate hosted by WRAL News, the three candidates addressed issues from North Carolina's controversial House Bill 2 and Donald Trump as the GOP presidential nominee to immigration reform and the Affordable Care Act. But they spent much of the time debating who is the most conservative and who is most tied to the Washington, D.C., establishment.
"I am a consistent conservative voice and vote in Washington," Holding said. "Washington is a messed-up place right now. There's a lot of double-talk coming out of Washington, and pushing back on it is what I've tried to do tonight and what I'll try to do in the future."
"If you want someone to go to Washington and be part of the doers rather than the do-nothings," Ellmers said, "I need (your) vote so that I can continue to fight for you and fight against the hypocrisy that is Washington."
"If you like the way things have been going the last four to six years, you have two options," Brannon said, referencing Ellmers' and Holding's experience in Congress. "Their lack of action or their not following through is actually helped destroy the American dream for this generation and future generations."
Holding and Ellmers attacked each other's records, with Ellmers saying Holding voted against money for U.S. troops to fight terrorism and Holding saying Ellmers refused to support an efforts aimed to stop the Obama administration's executive orders on immigration.
Ellmers referred to Holding, a former federal prosecutor, as "an immigration lawyer" and called one immigration amendment he mentioned as "completely meaningless." Meanwhile, Holding accused Ellmers of twisting his record, saying the military funding was linked to billions of dollars in domestic spending that he couldn't support.
"When a bill comes along that you think is a bad bill, you have to vote against it," he said.
Brannon pointed to the bickering as proof that the people now in Congress can't get anything done and that someone new is needed to represent the 2nd District. He likened his candidacy to Trump's.
"Americans and North Carolinians are tired of the establishment. They're tired of the status quo," he said. They're looking for an outsider, period."
Although he tried to stay above the fray and focus on his belief that government should adhere to the Constitution, Brannon at time became a target of the two Congress members.
"We are not going to fight ISIS by spouting the Federalist Papers," Ellmers said.
Holding ridiculed Brannon's belief that 50 state militias could protect U.S. borders and fend off terrorism and nuclear threats.
For her part, Ellmers ridiculed Holding for his overseas travel as a congressman. Her campaign has suggested that, while he portrays himself as a fiscal conservative, he frequently spends more than needed on these trips.
"So George Holding spending taxpayer dollars is about Barack Obama," she scoffed after he said the trips to India, Jordan and other countries are needed to get an accurate picture of U.S. foreign policy because he doesn't trust the Obama administration's view.
"George has been on 12 expensive, lavish junkets in just three-and-a-half years. I think that's more than most monarchs," she said.
"Ms. Ellmers came out of the box attacking my record as soon as she knew she and I were running against each other," Holding said. "It's a lot of double-talk. It's a lot of spin."
Here's how the three candidates stand on the issues discussed during the debate:
House Bill 2: All three said it was an appropriate state response to Charlotte's transgender nondiscrimination ordinance. Likewise, all three said the U.S. Department of Justice should "back off" from its legal action against the state and the federal guidance provided to schools about transgender bathroom access. "This is a state issue," Ellmers said.
Terrorism: Ellmers said the military needs adequate funding to fight ISIS. Holding said more input is needed from U.S. allies. Brannon said he would declare war on some nations in the Middle East, noting ISIS gets financial support from putative U.S. allies.
Immigration: Holding said no one in the U.S. illegally should be eligible for citizenship. Brannon said millions of people should be deported, noting the cost to taxpayers would be less than the cost of allowing people to remain here illegally. Ellmers said border security needs to be improved first before other problems with the immigration system can be addressed.
Trump: All three said they are behind Trump as the Republican presidential nominee, despite his brusque demeanor. Ellmers said his insulting tone toward women have softened over time, but more voters no longer care about being politically correct. "He has a different style than I have, but what he has tapped into is the Americans' just sickness with the double-talk that comes out of Washington," Holding said.
ACA: All three want to repeal it. Ellmers and Holding said replacement plans that feature more individual control would address problems the health care law has created. Brannon said government needs to get out of health care and let the free market deal with the cost and quality and care. "I would repeal it, defund it, kill it, never replace it with anything. That is not the role of the federal government, period," he said.