The final televised congressional debate of the 2018 election season in New Jersey ended with a bang, as the candidates fought to motivate voters to come out and cast a ballot against their opponent.
The hour-long debate was contentious. Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur spent most of his time on the offensive, and Democrat Andy Kim tried desperately to parry with personal anecdotes.
Though both men accused each other of being dishonest, twisting their words, or misrepresenting their positions, pundits agreed this debate is unlikely to sway any undecided voters. Ultimately, Patrick Murray, executive director of the Monmouth Polling Institute said, this race is going to come down to turnout.
Pivoting red and blue
New Jersey’s 3rd is a “pivot” district, going for Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election (by five points) and for Donald Trump in 2016 (by six points). This race has been uncomfortably close for both candidates; indeed the latest Monmouth poll released last week has Kim holding a statistically insignificant lead among likely voters, 48 percent to 46 percent.
It’s a tricky district to wrap up; it includes diverse groups of voters from year-round Shore residents, to Pinelands families, military vets, and Philadelphia commuters. As the election draws closer, it appears to have split in two: Democrats in western Burlington County are pulling for Kim, while MacArthur has a strong base in Republican Ocean County.
What’s more, President Donald Trump’s approval rating in the district is evenly divided. According to the Monmouth poll, 49 percent approve and 49 percent disapprove of the President. That means MacArthur’s close voting ties to the GOP could either help or hurt him.
NJTV moderator David Cruz began the debate by asking the candidates to address the recent shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead. Some have said the shooter was motivated by the president’s rhetoric, but MacArthur argued, “It’s a time to bring down the angst,” putting the blame and responsibility solely on those who commit such acts. He also added that now was not the time to “politicize” the issue (presumably talking about guns). Kim in response, called for sensible gun reform.
MacArthur was put on the spot for what many considered “racist” advertisements supporting his candidacy though paid for by the state GOP. He distanced himself from the ads and claimed Kim was “trying to get sympathy for it.”
Kim said the conversation around the ads is a “distraction from the real issues” like how the district feels about healthcare and taxation.
Putting the focus on immigration
Cruz also introduced a question about the caravan of immigrants traveling from South America and the president’s proposed solution of sending armed troops to meet them at the border. Immigration is a nuanced issue for the 3rd district, as South Jersey farms rely substantially on seasonal immigrant labor.
Kim said border security is a concern, but he hasn’t “seen the kind of details and response from military leaders for why (sending troops) is necessary,” and added that “we can’t have an ounce of politics involved when it comes to our troop deployments.”
MacArthur took a more recognizably conservative approach, noting that “we can’t just have people walk in” and mirrored Defense Secretary James Mattis’s remarks that the government would be “sending troops in a support role.” MacArthur said there needs to be a physical barrier, but that “we have to have a secure border and that’s compassionate to our people.” But on the question of whether or not he would support limiting legal immigration as the president has proposed, MacArthur noted that “we can’t continue to grow our economy if we don’t have people coming in, but they have to come in legally.”
Healthcare, a hot topic
Turning to healthcare, a topic the candidates repeatedly brought up, Kim took the opportunity to note that his opponent played a central role in the Republican attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act and wrote an amendment that would allow states to raise costs for those with pre-existing conditions. Kim said he does not support a single-payer model and has a goal of “making sure everybody in this country has healthcare.” He also advocated for allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
MacArthur called Kim’s statements “dishonest” and “gauzy generalities” and said he stands firmly against a single-payer system, claiming it would require increasing taxes that “would be a disaster” for the people of his district. He instead said his goal is to “bring costs down” and give states “more flexibility.” He also called for fee-for-service reform, tort reform, and limiting deductibles for insurers.
On the opioid crisis, Kim said Congress is not doing enough. “This is a national security crisis,” Kim said, adding that the nation “should be approaching this with same level of urgency as (fighting) terrorism.” He is calling for more federal funding to fight the epidemic that threatens to claim more than 3,000 people by the end of the year in New Jersey alone.
As the co-chair of the Bipartisan Heroin and Opioids Task Force in Congress, MacArthur said he has contributed significantly to the effort to battle the crisis. However, he said, “Is it enough? It’ll never be enough until we stop losing people.”
Tough on taxes
Taxation was another thorny issue for MacArthur, as he was the only member of the New Jersey delegation to vote in favor of the GOP tax-reform bill in Congress. During the debate, the congressman doubled down on his vote and added that if the economy continues to grow, “it will pay for itself” and that it’s the nation’s “best shot” for bringing down the deficit. He said “it’s good for families, good for business, and good for employees. I don’t understand why my opponent thinks the sky is falling.”
Kim raised the fact that the 11 other representatives from New Jersey, including four Republicans, did not vote for the bill since it capped the state and local tax (SALT) deduction, a move that many think would hurt New Jerseyans.
The ad hominem angle
The two candidates agreed on a few topics, including allowing students to refinance their loan rates, ensuring that residents of the district have access to flood insurance, and opposing legalization of recreational adult cannabis use. Most of the debate came down to ad hominem attacks on each other’s integrity and credibility as a candidate.
MacArthur repeatedly denounced Kim’s involvement with a Facebook group known as “Rise Stronger,” which he characterized as a “resistance organization” against the president and called Kim a “professional protester.” Kim retorted that the group was merely a social-media discussion room that he was a part of and from which he has since distanced himself.
MacArthur also accused Kim of exaggerating his military service, which he’s said in many attack ads. For his part, Kim said MacArthur was tied to Big Pharma and dismissed MacArthur’s claim of being bipartisan. MacArthur pointed to a Luger Center report that called him one of the most bipartisan members of the House. Kim said MacArthur voted with the Trump admistration 94 percent of the time.
Kim took MacArthur to task for failing to hold public town hall meetings and not travelling to Afghanistan to meet with the armed forces. MacArthur responded that “it’s one of the places I want to get to.”
Kim, who served as director of Iraq issues for the National Security Council during the Obama administration, also acted as civilian adviser to Gens. David Petraeus and John Allen in Afghanistan. He had a great deal to say on the topic of foreign policy and military service, pointing to a need for “coalition building” and investing deeply in the country’s alliances with other nations — alliances the Trump administration has been steadily breaking up. He also advocated for pulling out of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan “in a responsible way.”
MacArthur, meanwhile, was much more complimentary about the efforts of the Trump administration, adding that “this president has made a lot of progress with ISIS.” He also supported some of the president’s positions on tariffs, claiming, “We didn’t start a trade war with China, they started it with us.” MacArthur clarified that “having strong tariff and trade policy and then making exceptions” is the preferred method for dealing with international trade.
By the end of the night, both candidates had launched searing accusations. But Kim’s reliance on personal anecdotes often came up short against MacArthur’s tactic of seizing control and firing his own questions at his opponent.
And though nothing especially new was revealed, as Kim pointed out in his closing statement, “This election is all about choices.”