About 200 people turned out Thursday night in Rock Hill for a Republican candidate forum for the U.S. House District 5 seat.
GOP hopefuls Sherri Few, Ralph Norman, Tommy Pope and Kris Wampler debated a variety of issues in the race to replace former U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who resigned when he was tapped to join the Trump administration. Ray Craig arrived late and participated in about half the discussions. Chad Connelly was sick and didn’t attend, and Tom Mullikin chose not to attend.
The debate was hosted by GPS Conservatives for Action PAC.
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Soon after the U.S. bombings in Syria, candidates differed on whether the military action was needed, and what it meant.
“It was an act of war,” Wampler said. “I think if you had 60 missiles landing in your neighborhood, blowing up, you’d probably consider it an act of war. After 9/11, we call it an act of war when terrorists flew planes into our buildings.”
Wampler said he believes the country only should fight declared war, and shouldn’t be the police of the world.
“This is an incident where we have unfortunately, again, stretched ourselves and put ourselves into the affairs of another country,” Wampler said. “We’re going to make more enemies as a result. We’re not going to solve anything.”
Fellow candidates disagreed.
“I support it,” Pope said. “I believe that we have to reestablish the United States as a strength in the world. I believe, over the last eight years, we’ve apologized to the world. We’ve lost whatever leverage because the peace through strength mantra only works if you’re willing to use it.”
Norman said softer tactics by President Obama are a “catalyst for more wars” and President Trump had a responsibility to his own troops on the ground.
“The last eight years have been one of appeasement,” Norman said. “This country’s been a toothless tiger because of what Obama has done to this country.”
Norman said he believes the strikes were a step toward international respect.
“Thank God we’ve got a president now who is taking national security to another level, and we can gain the respect that we lost over this last eight years,” he said.
Craig said “we are not in an era of traditional warfare” and he will “firmly embrace” the bombings.
“These were symbolic strikes, indicating the full might and force of the U.S.,” he said. “It was a token. It was a shot across the bow.”
Few said she, too, supports constitutionally declared wars, but also the Syria attacks, which she doesn’t see as a declaration of war. She believes Trump “had the full responsibility” to protect troops, and sees the incidents as part of a larger picture in that region.
“It is our mission to stand up to radical Islamic terrorism,” Few said.
None of the candidates liked the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, but opinions varied a little on the latest Republican attempt to replace it.
Norman said he would have voted for the healthcare proposal so leaders could continue work to improve it. He believes a final version could have lowered premiums, kept doctors in the system and created competition. He disagrees with media reports calling the plan a failure.
“It wasn’t a failure,” Norman said. “You’ve got a businessman who’s laying something out there to be debated. That’s the purpose of amendments. You come up with a great plan.”
Pope hesitated to say what he would have done without participating in the debate. But, he said, his company is finding it harder to provide healthcare as it becomes harder to find a compliant plan. Pope said he supports “whatever combination of work in Congress that removes as many pieces of Obamacare, that repeals as many pieces as possible” and can pass on the Senate side.
On the Affordable Care Act replacement, Wampler said he “would’ve voted no on that.”
“Healthcare is not a function of the federal government,” he said. “It’s just not. When one of us takes and oath to the Constitution, we’ve got to live up to that.”
The proposed replacement keeps many of the problems, Wampler said, of the legislation it would replace. Wampler foresees future Democratic administrations using healthcare rules to bring back whatever regulations they choose.
“We’re going to have a Democratic administration at some point, and they’re going to put people in the Department of Health and Human Services, they’re going to put more regulations in there, and they’re going to turn it back into Obamacare,” Wampler said. “The only way you fix that is you get the federal government out of healthcare completely.”
Few said she “certainly would’ve voted no” on the bill. She said Norman and Pope have “walked back” on the issue.
“This is the first time I’ve heard them say that they would support that. In other debates, they have said I am for full repeal,” Few said. “And this Ryancare plan is not full repeal. And any better plan is not going to be full repeal. The only plan that’s going to be a better plan is full repeal.”
Candidates generally agreed on free trade. But they weren’t for free trade agreements.
“I support free trade, but I do not support the NAFTA free trade agreement, and particularly the most recent agreements where we have ceded our country’s decision making over to other countries, a small group of countries that don’t have our best interest at heart,” Few said.
Wampler said free trade agreements put undo rules and regulations on American workers.
“For free trade all you’ve got to do is get rid of the rules, not add more onto it,” Wampler said. “To have free trade you don’t need laws, you don’t need commissions, you don’t need bureaucrats and regulations, so I believe in actual free trade, not managed free trade agreements.”
Part of the issue, Pope said, is looking at existing agreements and getting out of those putting American workers at a disadvantage.
“We’ve got to have less restraint, more opportunities, not locking down the opportunity for growth, but also making sure all the bad deals that we’ve picked up in the last eight years, that we can get out of those,” Pope said.
South Carolina has fared well, Norman said, as a right to work state. It’s part of why Boeing, BMW, Contenintal Tire and others are here, Norman said.
“Americans have proven that if you turn lose the entrepreneurial spirit, we can compete anywhere in the world,” Norman said. “Regulations are the last thing that we need all over this country.”
Few, who once ran for state superintendent of education and carried Fifth District counties doing it, came out strong on education. She said getting rid of Common Core did little, because now students still have it “under a different name.”
“It starts with ending the Department of Education and all federal education mandates,” Few said.
She sees education as a larger societal issue, pointing to millenials backing the socialist ideas of Bernie Sanders or even communism.
“What’s happening in public schools is an intentional agenda to change our form of government from within,” Few said. “They are literally brainwashing children from a leftist position.”
Wampler views education from a larger societal lens, too.
“The American left is pro choice when it comes to aborting your child, but not when it comes to educating your child,” he said. “And that’s pretty messed up if you asked me.”
Tax dollars go to the federal government and the education department, then “they send the money back to us, and we’re thankful to get it back with strings attached,” Wampler said.
“That’s not right,” Wampler said. “The Department of Education needs to be eliminated and return this issue back to states, where it belongs.”
Pope said his children went to both public and private schools. He said at the Statehouse, the issue of school choice was “like a family going through divorce.”
“You know who was losing? Just like in a divorce, the kids are losing,” Pope said.
Pope said he supports a system where funding follows children where they go.
“We need to do whatever we can do to free up our tax dollars, to quit fighting about it and take care of our kids and their education,” Pope said. “Our country depends on it.”
“The dollars should follow the child,” Norman said. “Homeschoolers provide a great function. Private schools provide a great function. One size does not fit all.”
In South Carolina, education funding is about 50 percent of the budget, Norman said.
“Brick and mortar don’t educate children,” Norman said. “We’ve got one shot at giving our children the education they need that’ll prepare them to enter the work force and to be a productive member of society.”
Craig agreed, saying a wider view needs to be taken.
“There are these multiple options, including online,” he said. “The choices now are not simply public or parochial, or private.”
He takes the same approach to education as to other issues.
“The free market, that’s the best way for things to work,” Craig said. “The main thing is, to increase cultural literacy, civic literacy and the common good.”
Until federal education is eliminated, Few argued, choice isn’t choice.
“School choice is not choice when the money follows the child, as the others are saying,” Few said. “It’s no real choice if you’re only choosing what Common Core school my child is going to attend. Because that’s what we have now.”
She sent her children to public school, but said she wouldn’t again.
“I would never put my children in public schools,” Few said. “All three of mine went to public schools. Homeschooling is the only safe choice for children right now.”
If not you, then who?
Pope pointed to Wampler, who Pope said has taked about issues and stayed focused on what he believes throughout the campaign.
“A campaign is reflective of the character of the person that’s running,” Pope said.
Wampler returned the favor, recalling the phone call he received from who he believed to be the frontrunner in Pope when Wampler announced his candidacy.
“It’s because of his character, the character he’s shown to me,” Wampler said.
Few, “a very close second” for Wampler, looked at the issues. She and Wampler agree on sticking to the constitution for a variety of issues. She also said she couldn’t vote for Pope or Norman due to votes they’ve made in Columbia.
“It’s a difficult decision for me, seeing as Kris didn’t say me, but it would probably be Kris,” Few said.
Craig said the audience member who posed the question “should be commended” for asking it.
“To ask a person who is running for office to think of someone other than themselves is really a challenging question,” he said.
Craig said anyone would want to be elected, but “the sincerely held of convictions of every one of us sure beats the folks that have Ds after their names, and sure beats those that would not engage in the process.”
Norman said he wasn’t interested in the hypothetical.
“I’m running for this office,” Norman said. “I’m the best qualified candidate, by far. I am the only one that’s got a solid business record and a solid conservative (voting record).”
Forum organizers accomplished something uncommon at candidate events by, for a while, keeping answers brief. A yes or no portion put a checklist together for each candidate on major issues. They just didn’t distinguish much between participants.
Few, Norman, Pope and Wampler all favor Affordable Care Act repeal, secure borders, legal immigration for jobs requiring specific skills, a constitutionalist on the U.S. Supreme Court, a strong military, school choice for parents and their children, Constitutional Carry and a tax system simple enough to where software isn’t needed to file tax forms.
All four disagreed with the ideas of healthcare as an inherent right for all citizens, that climate change is primarily attributable to man-made pollutants and illegal immigrants having equal access to hospitals, schools and government facilities.
Unlike other debates, the GPS Conservatives for Action PAC hosting this one held a straw poll afterward.
Norman collected 49 percent of more than 150 votes. Pope followed with 35 percent, trailed by Few and Wampler at 6 percent each, and Connelly at 1 percent.