Attorney Conor Lamb (D-Mt. Lebanon) and state Rep. Rick Saccone (R-Elizabeth) largely stuck to their respective messages at Monday's first televised debate in the race to fill the vacant seat in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District south of Pittsburgh.
During the hour-long discussion moderated Downtown by KDKA-TV, Lamb, 33, again called for new leadership in Congress as well as more federal action on the opioid crisis, infrastructure and the cost of health care. Saccone, 60, vowed to advance President Donald Trump’s priorities, which he said include cutting taxes, undoing Obamacare and stepping up border security.
Saccone, who said he only deviates from the President around football (both candidates support the Steelers; Trump has publicly heralded the New England Patriots), hailed the recently passed GOP tax bill as “very popular” among employees and small businesses in the 18th District.
“It’s not the ‘crumbs’ that [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her crew on the left say [it is],” Saccone said. “These people are very happy to have the bonuses that they received.”
Lamb reiterated his opposition. While the Democrat said he favors more pay and lower taxes for the middle class, he criticized the tax cuts for adding $1.5 trillion to the national debt.
“We didn’t need to add a penny to our debt to have the tax cut for our working and middle-class people,” said Lamb, who described the GOP plan as a “giveaway” to the top 1 percent of income-earners and large corporations.
Elected to the state House in 2010, Saccone criticized Lamb, a first-time candidate, for his lack of legislative experience and cast doubt on his ability to execute on campaign promises.
“This is record over rhetoric,” Saccone said. “My opponent has no record. A candidate can say anything he wants. How many times have you been disappointed by people who say they’re going to do something, but get into office and don’t do it?”
“What matters is how we vote and what we do now,” Lamb countered, later adding that Saccone is “part of the same crowd in Harrisburg that has shutdown the government there, just like the people in D.C. who have shutdown the government and led to the gridlock that none of us want.”
Responding to a report that his per diem expenses exceed the average state lawmaker’s by 20 percent, Saccone said he doesn’t draw from the state pension or use a state-issued car. He added that every year he saves money on office expenses and returns the unused funds to the state.
The pair contrasted sharply on a range of issues, but agreed on guns.
Both candidates said they oppose new firearm restrictions, including bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.
Though many in his party support stronger gun control laws, Lamb said improvements to the federal background check system are more likely to prevent tragedies such as the mass shooting at a Florida high school last week.
A better background check system, Lamb said, would catch pertinent mental health and criminal history data and hold officials accountable if they fail to put that information to use. He said he also supported efforts to expand background checks to online sales and gun shows, as Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) proposed in 2012.
Saccone, who has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and holds an A+ rating from the organization, said an appropriate response would also examine the underlying factors that lead to gun-involved crime.
Like Lamb, Saccone said the government must refine its background check system to respond to warnings about specific individuals. He also suggested addressing family breakdown and a culture of violence as additional problems.
Many voters in the 18th district, which has included parts of Allegheny, Greene, Washington, and Westmoreland counties, are strong proponents of gun rights.
The March 13 special election was called to fill the now-vacant seat of Republican Tim Murphy, who resigned late last year amid controversy. It will not be affected by the new congressional district map issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Monday.