Candidates in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District squared off on a range of topics Monday night during a rowdy debate at Dixie State University in St. George.
Democrat Shireen Ghorbani is challenging three-term Republican incumbent Rep. Chris Stewart. The two acknowledged they agree on much, but differed on proposed solutions to issues such as health care affordability and the national debt.
A new poll shows Ghorbani trailing Stewart by 11 points — up from a 24-point margin earlier this summer.
Audience members interrupted the debate several times with applause and jeers, prompting some scolding from moderator Doug Wilkes, editor of the Deseret News.
Near the end of the debate, a man rushed on stage and yelled "Vaccines cause autism!" into Stewart’s microphone. The man was reportedly escorted out by police and arrested.
After the debate, Stewart told reporters he thought the man was a TV technician and he did not fear for his safety.
President Trump And National Security
When asked what she believes is the biggest threat to national security, Ghorbani suggested it is “the person in our White House.”
Ghorbani didn’t mention Trump by name, but said she is concerned about strained relationships with ally countries and “our overall ability to lead this nation with a level-headed and stable president.”
In response, Stewart said, “I can assure you that President Trump is not the greatest threat to our national security.” He believes the biggest long-term threat to America is China.
Stewart said he supports many of Trump’s policies but is not afraid to challenge the president when he disagrees with him, such as imposing tariffs on foreign imports.
“Just like I thought he was wrong on family separation at the border, just like I think he’s wrong about some of the things he said about Russia. I think he’s wrong on tariffs,” Stewart said.
Ghorbani also opposes the tariffs and said she has spoken with alfalfa farmers who are concerned about losing business due to retaliatory tariffs.
On whether Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election, Stewart reiterated that there is “no question” the government did. He called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “KGB thug” who applauds the deep divisions in American politics.
When asked later on if she supports Trump as President, Ghorbani said she wants Trump to do well, but is “troubled by his conduct.”
Stewart praised her answer and agreed, calling some of Trump’s tweets “indefensible.”
Having lost her mother to pancreatic cancer in 2016, Ghorbani said she has made access to affordable health care the top priority in her bid for Congress.
“I saw up close how quickly families can lose absolutely everything with one diagnosis,” she said.
Ghorbani called for more transparency in health care billing to drive down costs and said she supports “true and full reform of our health care system to make sure every American … has access to affordable health care.”
Stewart blamed much of the increasing costs of health care on the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and defended his votes in favor of repealing it.
“We were told it would reduce our costs (by) $2,500,” he said. “That’s not true. We were told we could keep out doctor, that it would reduce the deficit. Those things turned out not to be true.”
Stewart said a Republican plan would keep protections for people with pre-existing conditions, allow more flexibility to personalize health plans and allow people to purchase insurance across state lines.
“That sounds like Obamacare,” Ghorbani said.
Population Growth and Lake Powell Pipeline
When asked about accommodating the state’s fast-growing population, which is expected to nearly double by 2065, both Stewart and Ghorbani listed water and air quality as top concerns.
Stewart went on to say he is worried about a “potential clash” between the cultures of rural Utah and growing communities along the Wasatch Front.
“We want to protect both of those cultures. We want to protect the culture that’s so valuable in rural (areas): farming, ranching, mining, timber — those things that they’ve been doing 100 years, while at the same time protecting the quality of life along the Wasatch Front, where most of us live,” Stewart said.
When asked about the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline, which would pump water about 140 miles from Lake Powell to Washington County, Ghorbani expressed concerns about conservation and the project’s cost, which it estimated to be between $1.1 billion and $1.8 billion.
“Growth is certainly important,” she said. “But understanding what the actual, concrete costs are going to be to every resident is something I’d like to be much more comfortable with” before she supports the pipeline.
Stewart said he “absolutely” supports the pipeline.
“It is a very expensive project,” he said. But “the local community made the decision that they would fund that,” which prompted groans and some boos from the audience.
“You have to have a reliable source of water. If we don’t claim that water over in Lake Powell, California will, and we’ll lose our legal status and our legal ability to claim that water at any time in the future,” Stewart said.
Both candidates said the ballooning national debt is a major concern, but they had deep disagreements about how best to fix it.
Stewart said he has voted against and will continue to oppose omnibus spending bills.
We can’t have trillion-dollar deficits that go on forever and just say, ‘It’s ok,’” he said. “It’s not.”
Ghorbani criticized the Republican tax reform plan passed in December and questioned whether Republicans really care about reducing the deficit.
“We have seen ever-expanding debt added to our country because of decisions that have been made in these last two years,” she said.
Pointing to growing wages and employment numbers, Stewart defended his vote in favor of the tax plan and blamed Democrats for the rising deficit.
“They won’t work with us in serious ways to attack the debt,” he said.
Stewart heard some boos when he proposed cutting or reforming social programs, including Medicare and Medicaid. He suggested raising the retirement age and a more robust means test for social security.
Ghorbani defended the programs and said Medicare saved her family from financial ruin when her mother was suffering from cancer.
“I believe we can look at spending our money better on these programs,” Ghorbani said, but she does not want to make cuts or “force people to work into their 70s.”
She instead suggested trimming corporate tax breaks and “the excesses we’re spending on military contractors and on endless war.”
Up next is the Senate debate scheduled for October 9 at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, where Republican Mitt Romney will face Democratic challenger Jenny Wilson.
Watch the full debate here: