Rep. George Holding and Democratic challenger Linda Coleman sparred lightly over tax cuts, health insurance, sanctuary cities and the national debt in a policy-focused 2nd Congressional District debate Monday night that lacked the sharpness of the pointed campaign ads airing on their behalf.
Holding over and over again returned to the Republican-passed tax bill, while Coleman questioned his commitment to the people of the district during the hour-long debate at Spectrum News studios in Raleigh.
Holding, a 50-year-old former U.S. attorney, is seeking a fourth-term in the U.S. House. The 69-year-old Coleman, a former Wake County commissioner and state lawmaker, is in a statistical tie in the district, according to several internal and outside polls. Holding won the district with more than 56 percent of the vote in 2016.
The 2nd Congressional District includes parts or all of Wake, Franklin, Harnett, Johnston, Nash and Wilson counties. Libertarian Party candidate Jeff Matemu is also on the ballot in November.
“They call it the ‘empty chair town hall’ because there’s always a chair there for Mr. Holding, but there’s never anyone in it,” Coleman said in one of her sharpest attacks. “How do you know what your constituents are concerned with? How do you know what their issues are? How do you know what their values are? How are you going to serve them appropriately if you don’t talk with them?”
Holding, who called himself a “boring tax lawyer,” said town halls have turned into “political rallies” and he doesn’t want to contribute to the circus. Instead, he touted his work on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, crediting the bill with spurring strong economic growth and declining unemployment numbers. He said Coleman and other Democrats would imperil the economic gains if they took the House.
Democrats need to gain a net of 23 seats to take control of the chamber.
“The facts prove it worked,” Holding said. “Ms. Coleman has vowed that she would vote to repeal that. If we raise taxes, we’re going to bring this economy to a grinding halt.”
Coleman said she would repeal the bill, but not to raise taxes. The tax bill cut taxes on corporate income from 35 percent to 21 percent, a decrease that was permanent, and temporarily cut the individual tax rates. Coleman said she would cut loopholes in the tax bill and vowed to fight against cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to balance the deficit, which grew 17 percent after the tax cuts bill and which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, recently said need to be looked at in terms of budget savings.
“We all know that the wealthiest among us are getting the majority of the tax cut. We know that the wealthy are the ones who are receiving the benefits at the expense of the middle class and we know the middle class are the ones who are really carrying the whole weight,” Coleman said.
Holding said growing the economy was the best way to keep the government’s promises to Americans as it relates to programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
The debate opened with health care, which polls suggest is a top issue for many voters in the mid-terms. Coleman said she wanted to lower prescription drug prices and keep the mandate that health insurance companies cover those with pre-existing conditions, claiming Holding had voted 13 times to cut pre-existing conditions coverage.
Holding said that the Affordable Care Act, often known as Obamacare, had increased health insurance premiums for everyone.
“I voted to repeal Obamacare as many times as I was given an opportunity to for repealing Obamacare,” Holding said.
“Sixty-one,” Coleman interjected.
“I would have done it 62 times,” Holding replied.
Holding said the GOP-backed American Health Care Act, a replacement for the Affordable Care Act which passed the House but failed in the Senate, would have left pre-existing conditions coverage intact. He even read a passage from the bill. The bill would not have eliminated coverage for pre-existing conditions, but it would have allowed insurers to charge those with pre-existing conditions more, according to Politifact.
“I support protecting folks who have pre-existing conditions,” Holding said. “I don’t know of any policymaker in Washington that wants to prevent people with pre-existing conditions from being able to get health care.”
A federal lawsuit by attorneys general in Republican states is challenging the Affordable Care Act, and the Trump administration has declined to defend the health care law. If successful, the lawsuit could wipe out the mandate for pre-existing conditions.
The approval of President Donald Trump, who carried the district by 10 points, has been a motivating factor — for voters on both sides. Holding said that while he agrees with many of Trump’s policies, “I wish some of these early morning tweets didn’t happen. ... I don’t agree with the president on all his style and the way he carries himself.”
Holding also said he disagreed with Trump on steel tariffs and withdrawing from a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, which he announced Saturday.
Asked if there was anything she supported Trump on, Coleman gave a long pause.
“Ask me later,” she finally said to moderator Tim Boyum in one of the debate’s lighthearted moments.
She said she bucked her party in 2008 when she served in the state legislature, refusing to vote for a budget until it included pay raises for state employees, a stance that helped her earn an endorsement from the State Employees Association of North Carolina in this race.
Both candidates agreed that special counsel Robert Mueller should be allowed to finish his investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The debate touched on climate change, in light of the recent report from the United Nations that included dire warnings. Holding said he does think “human activity has all kinds of impacts on the environment,” but said regulations about climate change need to be balanced by economic impacts.
“The environment is a global issue. It can’t just be the United States that steps up and gets regulated into a position where we’re not competitive worldwide,” he said.
Coleman said the cost of inaction on the climate has already cost the country billions, pointing to devastating wildfires in California and the impact of recent strong hurricanes in North Carolina, including Florence.
In a nod one of the most critical attack ads on television, Holding brought up the issue of sanctuary cities — and Coleman’s support for them — several times. He said Congress could set federal laws that would overrule state laws, so even if North Carolina doesn’t have any cities that say they are sanctuary cities now, it could change.
Coleman said Holding’s attacks about sanctuary cities were “fear-mongering,” a theme she returned to in her closing statement. She said she didn’t want debate watchers to leave with “a vision of fear.”
“I want you to be hopeful. I want you to be hopeful that our tomorrow is going to be better than today. I want you to be hopeful that people can put food on the table. I want you to be hopeful that we can honor our commitment to our veterans and our seniors,” Coleman said. “But this is something we have to do together.”
Holding latched onto that theme, returning to his main message: a strong economy.
“I want everyone to know that I am very hopeful. With the Tax Cuts and Jobs bill, this economy is cooking,” said Holding, a father of four. “I’m hopeful for (my children) because they’re going to have the same opportunities that their parents had to grow and work in an economy that is doing really well.”