All five candidates — Republicans and Democrats — for Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District seat gathered Thursday at Bucks County Community College for the one and only debate before Tuesday’s primary election.
In front of a crowd of about 100 students and district residents, the candidates took turns answering questions about their campaigning and their differences in opinion on specific issues.
Each party had about an hour and half to hash out issues ranging from national security to pensions, with varying degrees of specificity.
The three Republican candidates — neuropsychologist Marc Duome, former FBI agent Brian Fitzpatrick and former County Commissioner Andy Warren — took to the stage first and largely recapitulated their stump speeches.
Democrats Shaughnessy Naughton, a scientist and businesswoman, and Steve Santarsiero, a state lawmaker, followed.
The GOP rivals barely sparred, but the Democrats continued on a campaign trajectory that turned increasingly negative in the past few weeks.
1. A ‘quiet’ race continues
The first query from moderator and BCCC political science professor Bill Pezza took aim at a Republican primary race that’s held few events. And when the candidates do disagree, they do little pushing on each other’s positions.
“With all due respect, you are running in a contested primary for United States Congress. The public would justified in expecting a vigorous and spirited campaign and airing of the issues,” Pezza said. “However, thus far, the Republican primary has been extremely quiet, almost nonexistent.”
All three candidates resisted the bait to tangle.
Fitzpatrick had the first crack.
“I don’t think it’s been quiet,” he said. “I’ve been out all day, every day meeting voters.”
Fitzpatrick is a former FBI agent and the younger brother of incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick. When he announced his candidacy in January, the other party-backed candidate cleared out, leaving opponents Duome and Warren. All three decried negative campaigning in their responses.
2. Don’t expect them to endorse a particular presidential candidate — although they dropped some hints.
In response to a nuanced question from Pezza about the crop of GOP presidential contenders, Warren answered first.
Though he is “very concerned” about the prospect of a Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, he said he would support the Republican Party’s nominee.
Fitzpatrick took a similar tack, adding that he objects to the “name-calling” that’s sounded on the national stage. He said he would back the candidate voters in the 8th Congressional District select.
Duome, calling this election cycle the “year of the outsider,” said the federal government needs “fresh air.” He named Ted Cruz and Donald Trump as part of this wave of candidates running without party blessing.
He said he thinks American voters should “send an outsider, send common sense” to Washington.
3. They differ on privacy, but not a whole lot else.
In the potpourri of questions raised during the debate, the most substantive difference between the candidates emerged in a question about what rights the state has to access citizens’ private information, using the example of the phone belonging to one of the shooters in the attack in San Bernadino, California, last year.
Apple refused to unlock the phone when asked by the federal government.
A self-described conservative, Duome said, in this case, civil liberties trump security concerns.
Fitzpatrick, drawing on his law enforcement experience, said “national security and civil liberties are not mutually exclusive.” He said he supported the FBI’s call for the phone to be unlocked.
Warren said compelling a company to turn over user data is a “slippery slope,” and called for a balance of security and privacy.
All three talked favorably about combating environmental degradation, shrinking the government, and keeping manufacturing in the United States. In his closing statement, Duome did take a parting shot at Fitzpatrick, who has both the biggest warchest and the party’s backing.
4. Santarsiero came out swinging.
Echoing a press release issued that same morning, Santarsiero used part of his opening statement to once again imply that his opponent has not been transparent in how her campaign is funded.
“I want to present a challenge to my opponent right now,” he said. “My campaign will make all of its expenditures and income since April 1 … public tomorrow morning.”
He called on Naughton, and the PAC she founded, to do the same.
Naughton called the request a “political stunt,” aimed at drawing attention away from issues.
5. It was a two person fight.
The debate featured more than one assertion of wrongdoing.
“I’m not going to allow you to lie about my record the way you’ve lied about your own,” she said, referring to campaign mailers released by Santarsiero’s campaign that mischaracterize his accomplishments as a four-term state representative.
In one instance, the literature refers to a bill he wrote as a “law,” implying that it had been passed when, in fact, the legislation did not. Another email blast uses the language, “Steve has passed over 54 bills in the state legislature,” which Naughton’s camp also says implies more authorship than is the case. In his speeches, Santarsiero is careful to couch his accomplishments more modestly, as collaborative efforts.
6. Campaign issues didn’t completely distract from issues.
Naughton and Santarsiero agree with a lot in the Democratic playbook, from supporting early childhood education to the need for greater restrictions on who can purchase a firearm. One substantive difference did emerge in the debate, relating to foreign policy, particularly the international agreement that aims to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
“I spoke to nuclear experts … and came to the conclusion that it puts us on a path to peace,” said Naughton, who said the deal buys the U.S. 10 years of relative peace of mind to figure out its next move.
Santarsiero, on the other hand, came out against the deal last year.
“It seems to me the deal they struck was not good enough,” he said. That said, since the deal has passed, he said if elected, he would “work with it.”