By Beau Evans
Capitol Beat News Service
Republican candidates sought to distinguish themselves in the crowded race for the 9th Congressional District in Georgia during a debate Sunday ahead of the June 9 primary election.
Their opinions ranged from lauding President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic to attacking each other’s background and voting records in the General Assembly. Many of the Republican candidates also highlighted their strong support for gun rights.
Meanwhile, a handful of Democratic contenders for the seat in the staunchly Republican district also weighed in with their views Sunday, diving into policy preferences on changes to health insurance and increasing the federal minimum wage.
The heavily Republican 9th District, which covers northeastern Georgia from Gainesville to Athens, is up in the air following the decision by current seat holder U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican, to run for U.S. Senate.
Hosted by the Atlanta Press Club, the debate Sunday drew eight of the nine Republican candidates. They largely alternated between praising and attacking each other during Sunday’s debate, while often calling for restrictions on businesses prompted by coronavirus to end.
State lawmakers running for the seat also sought to differentiate themselves from each other and the crowded pack.
State Rep. Matt Gurtler, who is known at the Georgia Capitol for voting against bills more often than other lawmakers, defended his approach as a limiting influence on the scope of government.
“It’s the natural proclivity of government to grow unless people and good conservatives stand up and draw a line in the sand and say enough’s enough,” said Gurtler, R-Tiger.
Gurtler then pressed his Georgia House colleague and competitor in the 9th District, Rep. Kevin Tanner, over legislation Tanner filed in the General Assembly to raise money for public transit in rural areas via levies on ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft.
Tanner, R-Dawsonville, batted back the criticism with a jab at Gurtler, stating that “there are some anarchists who believe there is no role for any government.”
“This is not government spending,” Tanner said. “It’s an investment.”
Tanner then singled out former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun over the conviction of his former chief of staff on obstruction charges in 2018 stemming from an ethics investigation into campaign finance issues.
Broun, who was never charged with any wrongdoing, accused Tanner of taking a cheap shot. Separately, Broun also called for Georgians to use “common sense” when returning to work amid coronavirus.
“I believe that people should do what’s necessary to keep themselves from getting coronavirus, the flu or anything else for that matter,” Broun said.
State Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, highlighted his support for farmers who have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. He defended a bill pending in the General Assembly that aims to boost lawsuit protections for Georgia farmers but which critics have called too generous for large, nuisance-prone agricultural operations.
“I think the coronavirus outbreak has shown us the importance of Georgia-grown products,” Wilkinson said.
Beyond coronavirus, Ethan Underwood, an attorney and former Forsyth County GOP chair, highlighted his views on health care centered on easing rules for employer-provided insurance plans and restrictions on purchasing out-of-state insurance options.
“What we need to do is de-couple our health-care system from employers,” Underwood said.
The issue of gun rights also figured prominently in the debate, with several candidates weighing in to show their support for firearm protections. Kellie Weeks, a gun store owner, appeared in the virtual debate in front of a rack of weapons hanging on a wall behind her.
Asked about her experience in the pandemic, Weeks said her customers have been experiencing long delays in background checks when seeking to purchase guns lately.
“I would definitely put that in place that you cannot do that again,” Weeks said. “That’s some bad policy right there.”
Andrew Clyde, who on Sunday referred to the ongoing pandemic as the “Chinese coronavirus pandemic,” said he would push to undo federal background-check requirements and waiting periods under the 1993 Brady Act.
“It turns a constitutional right into a privilege granted by a corrupt department of the government,” said Clyde, a U.S. Navy veteran who also owns a gun store.
Michael Boggus, a crane operator, said he wants permitting requirements loosened for gun owners to allow them to more easily travel across state lines with their firearms.
“We shouldn’t be allowed to be told where we can and can’t go with our firearms,” Boggus said.
Georgia’s Democratic Party fielded far fewer candidates for the traditionally Republican-voting 9th District. The three Democratic hopefuls for the district seat touched on issues including health care, immigration reform and the challenges of overcoming strong local support for Republicans.
Some of the candidates diverged on their proposals for changing health insurance plans. Devin Pandy, an actor and U.S. Army veteran, said he supports universal health care but favors allowing people to keep their private insurance plans if they want.
“I believe that those things should go hand-in-hand so that everyone has a choice for the health care that suits them and their families,” Pandy said.
The candidates also highlighted economic issues in Hall County, which hosts the state’s important poultry industry and a growing Latino community. Dan Wilson, a retired reverend, said giving immigrant residents a clearer path to lawful residency would help strengthen the local economy.
“We can increase legal immigration and take care of some of the economic stresses that are being caused,” Wilson said.
Brooke Siskin, a small business owner, said she would push for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour to ease financial burdens for struggling workers and incentivize productivity.
“We need to have a $15 minimum wage,” Siskin said. “Our cost of living has skyrocketed.”
(Capitol Beat is a nonprofit news service operated by the Georgia Press Educational Foundation that provides coverage of state government through Georgia Press Association members, such as the White County News.)