Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers and Democratic challenger Clay Aiken clashed repeatedly in an hourlong debate Monday in the contest to represent the 2nd Congressional District.
Ellmers, the two-term incumbent from Dunn, dismissively referred to Aiken several times as an “entertainer” and implied he didn’t understand Washington.
Aiken rose to fame as an “American Idol” contestant. This is his first run for office.
“You just can’t go in with a song and dance,” she said. “That’s not the way it works.”
Aiken said Ellmers does what Republican House Speaker John Boehner tells her to, at the expense of 2nd District interests.
“It’s a shame that you still believe that John Boehner is your boss,” he said.
The debate covered a range of topics including foreign policy and combating the Islamic State, military spending, immigration, the Affordable Care Act, cybersecurity, same-sex marriage and jobs. Moderator David Crabtree gave the candidates considerable leeway, which resulted in a freewheeling exchange of criticism. It was taped Monday afternoon and aired on WRAL.
Ellmers was a nurse for 20 years before she won the congressional seat campaigning against the Affordable Care Act, which she calls Obamacare. After her victory in 2010 over a veteran Democrat, the legislature redrew the district to make it easier for a Republican candidate to win. The district is shaped like a lopsided-U covering all or parts of nine counties in the central part of the state. The district includes precincts in the western Wake suburbs, parts of Harnett and Chatham, Fort Bragg, and Moore County and its retirement communities.
Just as Aiken tried to tie Ellmers to Boehner and a Congress with few accomplishments, Ellmers attempted to link Aiken to President Barack Obama – who twice has lost in the district by wide margins – and to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
In an exchange on job creation, Ellmers referred to the unsteady “Obama-Aiken economy.”
Aiken replied that Ellmers needed a better writer. “To call this the Obama-Aiken economy is preposterous,” he said. “I have nothing to do with President Obama, and I can find several areas where I disagree with him.”
As hard as Ellmers tried to link Aiken and Obama, Aiken tried to pull away, saying for example, that he did not agree with everything Obama was doing to combat the Islamic State.
Aiken said he supports airstrikes, but “would not support sending ground troops at this time.”
Ellmers said Obama was slow to react to the Islamic State threat, but Congress has approved of his plan to arm Syrian rebels.
“We have to remember who we’re dealing with here,” she said. “This is the most brutal, heinous group we have ever seen, and we have to make sure that we’re doing everything we can do possibly to support our allies.”
If it came to a vote, Ellmers said, she would vote to send in ground troops.
Aiken said Ellmers “changed her tune” on sending ground troops into the region after Boehner said it might be necessary.
“To hear Congresswoman Ellmers change her tune because her party leader changed his tune is concerning,” Aiken said. “The military, right now, is overwhelmingly against sending ground troops.”
Ellmers replied that Aiken didn’t understand the fluidity of the situation. “John Boehner may be the Speaker of the House, the people of the 2nd District are my boss,” she said. “I’m reapplying for this job.”
Hours after the news broke that the U.S. Supreme Court would not hear same-sex marriage appeals, the candidates gave muted responses to the question of whether they could “see the day” when gay marriage is legal in the state.
Voters in 2012 overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Aiken, who is gay, used the question to mention that both he and Ellmers opposed the state amendment.
“I think the voters have spoken,” he said. “That’s certainly not why I’m running.”
Ellmers said she believes that marriage is between one man and one woman but thought that the state amendment may have gone too far in banning civil unions.
“I believe, especially as a Republican, that the government can be too intrusive in all of our lives,” she said.
After the debate she said, “I, like every citizen, am sitting back to know what happens” with gay marriage.
Staff writer Claire Williams contributed.