The two candidates in Oklahoma’s closely watched 5th Congressional District talked health care, foreign policy and policing during their first debate ahead of November’s election.
First-term Democratic congresswoman U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn and her Republican challenger, state Sen. Stephanie Bice, made their cases to voters during Thursday night’s debate sponsored by Oklahoma Watch and OETA.
The race has attracted national interest and is expected to bring in millions from outside groups since both parties see the race as key in taking control over the U.S. House of Representatives after November’s general election. Their next Oct. 13 debate will be televised at 8 p.m. on KWTV Channel 9 in Oklahoma City and news9.com.
Horn surprised many political experts in 2018 when she defeated incumbent Republican Steve Russell in a contest that was decided by just a few thousand votes. This year, experts again predict a tight election with the polling analysis website FiveThirtyEight even projecting it as the most competitive House race in the country.
Here are four takeaways from the first of several planned debates between the two congressional hopefuls:
Candidates See More Federal Involvement in COVID Response
The first question of the debate unsurprisingly was on COVID-19 as the nation’s death toll from the deadly virus has now topped 211,000, including nearly 1,100 Oklahomans.
Horn said leaders need to listen to the science and keep politics out of their decisions. She also touted her work on a 50-member bipartisan group in Congress, called the Problem Solvers Caucus, that has, so far unsuccessfully, tried to come up with a compromise on the next round of COVID stimulus funds.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had leadership on both sides of the aisle that have been pointing fingers back and forth,” she said.
Bice agreed that bipartisan solutions are needed and said Congress needs to act quickly to open up more Paycheck Protection Program funds.
She added students need to be back in the classroom and called on the federal government to provide personal protective equipment to ensure they can do so safely.
“We need kids back in school, it’s incredibly important,” she said.
Horn, Bice Split on health care
With the U.S. Supreme Court planning to hear a case in its next term that could overturn the 10-year-old Affordable Care Act, the two candidates offered differing plans on how they would approach keeping or changing the pivotal health care law.
Horn, saying that health care is “a right and not a privilege reserved by the few,” said Congress needs to protect the law, especially its protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
“We need to fix what we have,” she said.
But Bice, like most Republicans, said she will work to repeal and replace the law.
“I do support the repeal of the Affordable Care Act because for middle-class Oklahoma families, it’s no longer affordable for health care,” she said. “We’ve seen a significant increase in prescription drug prices, in premiums and deductibles.”
Bice, however, said she wants to keep protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
She suggested expanding the use of healthcare savings accounts, which allows people to set aside money to be used for pre-tax or tax-deductible qualified health costs, as a way to improve the law. But she did not go into broader specifics or what specific parts of the law she wants to be repealed.
Both Reject Defunding Police
Bice sought to contrast the candidates’ views on policing reforms following a summer of unrest and protests aimed at racial injustice, including the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Bice rejected calls by some Democrats to “defund the police,” which would seek to reduce funding or reallocate money away from police departments.
“I stand with law enforcement, but I also think it’s time we address bad apples,” she said. “But you can’t just wipe them away and start over.”
But Horn said she too doesn’t want to defund the police. Instead, she said she supports bills that would ban choke holds and add ban racial profiling. She said she wants to give police funds for extra training to deal with 911 mental health calls.
“What we need are bipartisan solutions that address the issues of systemic inequality and injustice in a way that is sustainable,” she said.
Views Differ on Foreign Policy
Horn and Bice, however, showed clear policy differences on several foreign policy topics.
On a question about the 18-year war in Afghanistan, Horn said the United States needs to be thoughtful and deliberate with pulling out its remaining troops to ensure security interests there and abroad are protected.
Bice, on the other hand, was more forceful in suggesting the U.S. leave the country.
“We have done everything we can to stand up a functioning government,” she said. “I think we really need to consider bringing our troops home.”
When it comes to immigration policy, Bice said she supports President Donald Trump’s call to build a wall along the Mexican border.
“We need to keep the drugs and bad people out,” she said.
But Horn said as a country “founded by immigrants,” can strive to meet the “ideals of who we are” without sacrificing national security.
She also said Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, also known as Dreamers, need certainty on their future and said Congress should establish a “pathway to citizenship” for them.
“As we consider immigration issues, we have to make sure we are taking care of our national security without dehumanizing people in the process,” she said. “We can, should and must do both.”
Trevor Brown has been an Oklahoma Watch reporter since 2016. He covers politics, elections, health policies and government accountability issues. Call or text him at (630) 301-0589. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @tbrownokc