A scheduled debate between U.S. Rep Ralph Norman and Democratic challenger Archie Parnell took an unscheduled turn Thursday from the start.
Both candidates made their cases before about 100 Kiwanis Club members and guests at the Palmetto Room in Rock Hill, S.C.
The Rock Hill Republican began by asking the crowd if they had heard the latest news from the hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, following sexual misconduct allegations.
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out that she was groped by Abraham Lincoln,” Norman said, drawing some laughter from the audience.
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Norman’s reference to the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg is not original. A meme began circulating on Facebook two days before the debate.
Trav Robertson, chair of the state Democratic Party, criticized the remark on Twitter. Robertson said the comment showed Norman “doesn’t have any class.”
The state Democratic Party tweeted the comment was “disgusting.”
Once past the opening statements, Norman spoke of how difficult it can be working with Democrats, who so fundamentally disagree on issues from economics to regulation to public assistance. Parnell talked about how entrenched Republicans are in their positions, and the need for both parties to work together.
Parnell is challenging Norman for his Fifth Congressional District seat. They didn’t agree on much, but there was one point.
They agreed that November is critical not only for them, but for the country.
“The course of our country depends on this,” Parnell said, calling the Nov. 6 decision an “extraordinarily” important election.
Norman said an influx of Democrat representatives could lead to a Congress aiming to impeach President Donald Trump, rescind tax cuts, reinstate government-run healthcare, move away from building a U.S.-Mexico border wall, bring back regulations that “put a handcuff on every business in this country” and less military funding.
Parnell said he will “put country above party,” recalling what residents throughout the district have told him on an almost daily basis.
“They have deep, deep concerns about dysfunction in Washington, not getting things done,” Parnell said.
Norman pointed to the nation’s capital as the best case for his re-election. Norman said economic indicators, unemployment, taxes and energy reliance are stronger today than when President Barack Obama was in office.
“Times are better now,” Norman said.
The candidates debated trade tariffs, which Parnell said are increasing costs for consumers and manufacturers.
“It’s picking winners and losers, and I thought that’s what the marketplace is supposed to do, not government,” Parnell said.
Norman said it isn’t fair for other countries to have higher tariffs, and it’s a “solid decision” to even the playing field. Americans can compete, he said, and should be allowed to in an environment that promotes manufacturing.
“How is it fair for America to not get back into the production of steel and aluminum?” Norman said. “That’s a national security issue.”
While Norman said he “absolutely” supports building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Parnell calls it a “15th-century solution” for needed immigration reform.
“To build a wall for political purpose is nonsense,” Parnell said.
The candidates also disagreed on the role of government in healthcare. Parnell said a public option is needed.
“Allow people to purchase Medicare coverage if they choose to do so,” he said. “It’s their choice.”
Norman said premium increases of 40 percent to 50 percent from before the Affordable Care Act are something Democrats put on the country, and people “cannot afford to get sick now with the deductibles that you have.” Government-run healthcare, he said, doesn’t work.
“If you want the government run like the post office,” Norman said, “continue on.”
They did agree the national deficit is an issue, but differ on how to solve it. Norman said too many people are “addicted to government” and he will cut down on unnecessary spending.
“I was not elected to Congress to bankrupt this country,” he said.
Parnell said the federal “deficit is exploding” and each household with a $127,000 share of that debt isn’t sustainable. Tax code changes need to make taxation “more fair,” he said, and there are too many incentives for companies to invest overseas and pay no tax here.
“If you only look at one thing,” he said of spending cuts, “it’s like building a stool with only one leg.”
Norman and Parnell also disagreed on the role Trump plays in accomplishing goals.
Norman said regardless whether people like Trump’s personality, the business man in him gets the job done.
“He says things to get you to the bargaining table,” Trump said. “That’s the business of it.”
Parnell said Trump’s statements can’t be overlooked, at one point calling the president’s handling of election interference by Russia “disgraceful.”
“Words are vitally important,” Parnell said. “Words are what start wars.”
Even when the candidates agreed, the end result varied.
“Has Russia interfered with our elections?” Norman said. “Absolutely. They’ve done it for the last 50 years. Russia is not made up of Sunday school teachers.”
Norman said the election happened under Obama’s watch, and it shows the need for voter identification as “an integrity issue that we need to have all over this country.”
Parnell criticized Norman for voting against legislation to fund improvements in state election safeguards. Parnell said South Carolina needs paper ballots, at least as a backup.
“When Russian hackers attacked the 2016 election, they attacked all of us,” Parnell said.
Both candidates support term limits and improving infrastructure. However, they ave widely different outlooks on what the country should look like after the November election.
For Norman, it’s critical voters turn out if they want to continue the momentum the Trump administration and other Republicans like himself have established. Parnell said while he may be just one change among a large Congress, voters have an opportunity to start.
“It’s a start,” Parnell said, “and we have to start.”
After the debate, Parnell posted on Twitter about Norman’s opening comment saying sexual assault is not a joke. He also took a jab at the U.S. congressman for an April incident that sparked controversy when Norman placed a loaded gun on a table during a meet-and-greet with constituents in Rock Hill.
Norman tweeted, too, saying his remark was to bring “levity to a very serious debate” and people need to “lighten up.”
In a following tweet, he said Parnell understood since he didn’t mention it during the debate.
He again tweeted, blaming Democrats and the media for creating “distractions to the current circus.”