Republican candidates vying for the chance to take on incumbent Democratic Representative John Barrow for Georgia’s 12th District seat gathered during the Savannah Republican Women’s luncheon to discuss the issues last week.
In front of a standing-room-only crowd in the Johnny Harris banquet room, each of the four Republicans – Ray McKinney, Jeanne Seaver, Carl Smith and Mike Horner – are tasked with finding a way to distinguish themselves from a field of opponents all staking campaigns on the virtues of small government, lower taxes and general dissatisfaction with deficit spending and the current administration.
With primary elections scheduled for July 20, the candidates are preparing to enter the homestretch of the campaign season after months of travel throughout the 22 counties in the district, which stretches from Savannah to Augusta and west to Milledgeville.
Sharing largely similar ideological views regarding the needs of the district and the country, the event was more a question and answer session than a debate between participants. In rotation, candidates were asked three different questions and given a minute and half to respond to each.
The first question went to Mike Horner, a retired Air Force officer who decided to run for office after attending the Tea Party’s March on Washington during September of last year.
Regarding his policies, Horner contends that job creation is directly tied to balancing the budget, that “loser pays” tort reform will do more to fix healthcare than federal legislation and that there are too many duplicated services in government, including “over 300 agencies dealing with economic development” and “16 intelligence agencies.”
He was followed by Ray McKinney, a businessman with blue collar roots who worked his way up to an executive position. McKinney also ran last year, coming in second in the primary.
McKinney’s answers centered on the ‘less is more’ approach, including getting government out of the way of business, making cuts to Medicaid and stronger enforcement of illegal immigration laws.
Seaver, a businesswoman and community advocate, went third and clearly defined her stance as anti–federalist, saying that the federal government “should stay out of our hospitals and schoolhouses.” She distinguished herself with a few answers that were outside the usual Republican fare, including support for the Fair Tax system and an interest in social intervention programs for at–risk youth.
Last but not least was Carl Smith, a third-generation firefighter from Thunderbolt, whose charisma and passion for the issues clearly won a few hearts in the room.
His answers included passing a balanced budget amendment, stronger enforcement of immigration laws and the need to create more jobs across the district.
The Republicans, however, face a difficult juggling act this election season, and some of their hallmark issues of past elections don’t seem as secure as they once were.
As the Grand Old Party seeks to re–dedicate itself to core conservative principles after the ideological confusion of the Bush era, the candidates are prone to inconsistencies as they simultaneously try to court the grassroots Tea Party supporters and attack the Democratic administration.
For example, after being asked about what spending cuts he would propose, Smith declared he would put a stop to “wasteful earmarks.” Then, after a question about what problems were unique to the district, he chastised Barrow for being a member of the majority party but not doing enough to develop the local economy, particularly the port.
“He should be able to walk into Pelosi’s office,” Smith said. “Why aren’t we getting the money we need to build jobs?”
Later, Seaver was victim to the proverbial rock and a hard place between which Republicans are mired on the issue of offshore drilling.
Having told the audience earlier that the federal government should “stay out of our lives,” Seaver proceeded to answer the question of whether she still supported offshore drilling by saying she was “disgusted with what’s going on off the coast,” and criticizing the administration for not doing more.
The luncheon ended with the candidates offering up closing statements on why they would be the best choice to take on Barrow in the fall.
Horner, who may have had a disadvantage in going first, argued that his background and his conviction made him the best candidate, vowing to round up all the “toothless” Republicans in Washington.
McKinney shifted the focus to the national significance of the race, saying that “the key is to beat John Barrow,” or be stuck with another four years of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House.
He also surprised the crowd by saying that if he doesn’t win the primary he will support whoever does, including donating $100,000 to be used in the general election.
Seaver cleverly played off McKinney’s remarks by saying that she wasn’t the best to beat Barrow, but was “the best to represent the 12th District,” including a plan to have politicians spend less time in Washington and more time in their home districts.
She concluded with a reminder to the women’s group that “we can make history in Savannah,” by making her the first Republican Congresswoman from Georgia.
Smith’s closing argument stressed the importance of returning to “the guiding principles” of the conservative party, and said that focusing too much on Barrow would be a mistake because a candidate “can’t run against somebody,” but must “run for something.”
In one of the few remarks to get a laugh out of the audience, the firefighter joked that “running into burning buildings is a piece of cake compared to running this election.”
Although there are still several weeks until the primary election, when voters will decide which candidate will square off against Barrow, the local Republican establishment seems to be siding with Smith, who has gained endorsements from a handful of state representatives and county commissioners over the past few months.