It was easy to tell Republicans from Democrats during Monday’s candidate forum for two open seats in the Georgia House, but voters may have a more difficult time sorting out who they want to vote for among three Republican contenders in one of the races.
Republican Houston Gaines and Democrat Deborah Gonzalez, both of Clarke County, are vying to replace Republican Regina Quick in House District 117, which includes portions of Clarke and Oconee counties. Quick stepped down earlier this year when Gov. Nathan Deal appointed her to fill a vacant Superior Court judgeship.
Four want to succeed District 119’s Chuck Williams, also a Republican, who resigned to become director of the Georgia Forestry Commission. Those include Republicans Steven Strickland, Marcus Wiedower and Tom Lord as well as Democrat Jonathan Wallace — all of Oconee County. District 119 includes parts of Clarke, Oconee, Barrow and Jackson counties.
None will have “Democrat” or “Republican” beside their names on the Nov. 7 election ballot because it’s a special election, without preceding party primaries.
But all have declared their parties, and their answers to questions from an audience of about 100 voters during Monday’s forum at Oconee Veterans Park left no doubt of their affiliations.
Asked if they had voted for Donald Trump in last year’s presidential race — and if they would do so again, Gonzalez and Wallace said no.
“I don’t like that our country is being run like a reality TV show,” Wallace said.
Strickland, Wiedower and Lord said they would vote for Trump again. Gaines didn’t directly say, but said he supported Trump initiatives such as tax reform.
Their responses were also starkly different at times when audience members asked about whether the state should expand Medicaid, which could cover hundreds of thousands of Georgians who aren’t currently covered, and bring in hundreds of millions of federal dollars to help pay for it.
Strickland said many had brought on their health problems with unhealthy practices, and that the state should wait until federal legislators choose a direction
Gaines said it would be prudent to wait until federal legislators decide the fate of the Affordable Care Act and whatever comes after; acting now could cost trillions of dollars, he said.
“If we wait, a lot of people are going to die, and that’s a problem we’re experiencing right now,” Gonzalez said.
“The high cost of health insurance kills entrepreneurship,” Wallace said.
Both Democrats pointed to the plight of rural areas, where hospitals are closing.
On the issue of campus carry, there was also a clear division. Democrats opposed allowing guns on college campuses, but the Republican candidates said they supported campus carry. Wiedower and Strickland said the law needs to be fine-tuned or adjusted, though they didn’t specify how they would do it.
There was agreement, at least on the surface, that state voting districts are gerrymandered to suit the party in power, though it wasn’t clear what the candidates would do to address that issue.
“I think you can say the district (117) is gerrymandered,” Gaines said. “I think it’s important to respect county lines.”
Gonzalez said she supported an independent redistricting commission.
All three Republicans in the District 119 race said they supported a “religious liberty” bill vetoed by Deal that had been opposed by gay rights and human rights groups as well as business groups.
“I do not agree with the governor’s veto,” Wiedower said. “I don’t think we should be held hostage to any large industry.”
Strickland reminded the audience that the U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on similar laws in other states, which will change what’s allowable in such a law.
“I will step up and I will fight for religious freedom,” he said.
All said they would support women’s rights, responding to another question.
“I support the rights of all people,” Lord said.
Citizen journalist Lee Becker, one of the organizers of Monday’s forum, recorded it on video and will post the entire session of nearly three hours on his Oconee Observations blog, he said.