Candidates for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District faced off in their first and only debate Monday night, marking clear distinctions between themselves.
It was the first debate to feature three candidates, including Libertarian Robert Latham who is the first third-party candidate to qualify for a debate hosted by the Utah Debate Commission. However, it largely focused on the two major party contenders: incumbent Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) and Democrat Kael Weston.
As Weston seeks to replace Rep. Stewart, he spent the debate drawing harsh lines between him and his opponents.
“This is 100% difference here tonight,” said Weston, former writer-in-residence at Westminster College.
Stewart emphasized his experience, calling himself “by far the most qualified” of the three candidates. The incumbent has represented the heavily-GOP district since 2013, leading the 2020 race at nearly 48%, according to a recent poll by the Utah Debate Commission.
The same poll showed Weston trailing at 28.4% with Latham at 6.5%.
The debate highlighted key differences between the candidates — especially between Rep. Stewart and Weston, who occasionally engaged in tense back-and-forths.
“My opponent seems to have a low opinion of me, I didn’t realize that until tonight,” Stewart said.
“Just a fair warning,” Weston replied.
The Democratic candidate criticized Stewart on several issues — from his voting record on health care and the pandemic response to his strong support for President Donald Trump.
“Bad policies and bad leaders can result in unnecessary deaths,” Weston said. “This election is a referendum on Donald Trump. The poisonous politics of fear and division.”
Candidates for 2nd Congressional District butt heads on health care
With uncertainty surrounding the future of the Affordable Care Act, candidates spent a substantial amount of time addressing their campaign policies.
Both Weston and Stewart use health care plans provided by the ACA, commonly known as Obamacare. However, the two argued whether they carried the same provisions.
As a member of Congress, Stewart is required to purchase health insurance through Obamacare.
“I know how bad it is,” he said during the debate. “I deal with it every month.”
Knowing the setbacks and challenges, Rep. Stewart said that’s why he has voted — and will continue to vote — in favor of repealing the ACA.
“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “That’s a fact because I’ve done it multiple times.”
Weston challenged the Congressman, arguing average Utahns on the Affordable Care Act — like himself — would trade their health care for what members of Congress have.
Stewart pushed back, arguing the provisions were largely the same.
“I’m surprised you don’t know this,” he said.
Although Stewart chooses from the same provisions under Obamacare, there are additional areas of health care members of Congress can receive which are unavailable to the average American, according to Snopes.
This includes access to the Office of the Attending Physician, which provides on-site treatment and exams.
Candidates address pandemic response
The candidates also spent a considerable amount of time discussing the pandemic response.
While Libertarian Latham argued the federal government shouldn’t have a part in the pandemic relief, Rep. Stewart said it has “an important role” to play. In fact, he said the country has seen some great successes because of it.
He pointed to the president’s travel ban from China that went into effect Feb. 2 and the creation of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. President Trump also hailed these efforts during the first presidential debate, emphasizing the “early” ban saved “thousands of lives.”
However, critics argue whether this could be considered an “early” response as 45 other countries banned travel before the U.S. imposed its restrictions on China in early February.
Weston challenged Stewart, noting the federal government “failed” the American people — pointing to the president’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization.
“The global pandemic can’t be solved by the United States alone,” he said.
The two candidates both supported an additional stimulus package. However, Stewart said he wants to see it focus on small businesses, schools and people who need additional help.
Weston criticized the congressman on his answer, noting Rep. Stewart voted against the most recent coronavirus relief bill.
“I don’t think we hire people to go to Congress to tell us why they can’t get the job done,” Weston said.