After weeks of speculation as to whether or not Republican Congressman Jeff Denham and his Democratic challenger Josh Harder would ever meet in public to argue the issues, the two came face-to-face in front of a live audience for a debate on Saturday in Turlock.
Those hoping for an energetic debate most likely left the Carnegie Arts Center pleased after Denham and Harder spent an hour and a half arguing about topics like healthcare, immigration, water and more, all while throwing in a few personal barbs throughout. The debate was hosted by the Turlock Journal and MNC Newspapers and was a ticketed event, with each candidate receiving an equal amount of tickets to distribute and the rest awarded by lottery.
Already a contentious race thus far, the two candidates took turns throwing blows while answering questions.
Each candidate stuck to their campaign messages during the event, which have been seen on television ads from both parties in recent weeks, with Harder continuously going back to Denham’s vote on the American Health Care Act, which would have stripped many District 10 residents of healthcare, as well as the incumbent’s recent attempt and failure to pass an immigration reform bill.
Denham was quick to remind the audience of Harder’s “Bay Area” principles and his career as a venture capitalist, as well as the fact that the Democrat has failed to vote in 17 of the past 20 elections.
After Harder called Denham out during the debate’s first question about water for failing to secure federal funding for Valley water storage projects — Denham’s most recent legislative victory in the House allows local irrigation districts to apply for federal loans to finance new water infrastructure — the Congressman accused Harder of not having the Valley’s best interests at heart to begin with.
“We call him ‘Bay Area Harder’ because he aligns himself with Bay Area issues,” Denham said, and later in the debate reminded the audience that Harder receives big contributions from outside of the district.
Another talking point for Denham’s Democratic challenger throughout, Harder argued that the Congressman has taken 70 percent of his campaign funding from corporate political action committees and reiterated his campaign promise to refuse corporate PAC money.
Denham repeatedly referred to Harder as “Professor,” which he seemed to question by stating that his son, who attends Modesto Junior College where Harder serves as an adjunct professor, was unable to find the Democrat’s office hours.
Harder smirked at much of what Denham had to say during the debate, and twice referred to the Congressman’s statements as “alternative facts” — particularly, when Denham stated Harder had a “Bay Area” position on immigration and supported sanctuary cities and abolishing ICE.
“I don’t know where you get your facts,” Harder said. “…me saying I want to abolish ICE? I have never said it and I don’t support it.”
At one point, Denham alluded to the interactions on stage that had the audience clapping, shaking their heads and even booing at times.
“We’re throwing barbs back and forth today. I guess it’s kind of fun, kind of entertaining,” Denham said.
When discussing healthcare, Denham asked Harder how he expected the country to pay for Medicaid for all, which Harder has in the past stated he supports, and stated that his focus would be to continue increasing access in the region through residency programs and teaching hospitals.
His prioirites for healthcare would be protecting preexisting conditions and ensuring “affordable” healthcare for all, Harder responded.
The candidates were also asked if they were willing to stand up to party leadership when it comes to issues they disagree with. Democratic attacks on Denham have accused him of being too closely aligned with Trump, while Harder opponents have likened a vote for him to a vote for Nancy Pelosi.
“I’ve been vocal against my own party when I don’t believe they’re doing the right things,” Denham said.
“You have stood up to your party. Two percent of the time,” Harder said, who repeated throughout the debate that Denham has voted with his party for 98 percent of his votes in Congress.
Denham took issue with this at one point during the debate, citing Harder’s own voting record.
“It’s one thing to criticize my position, but at least show up and vote,” Denham said. “He didn’t start voting until he decided to move back to the district and run for office. If you want people to vote for you…at least utilize your right to vote.”
Harder thanked him for bringing up the issue.
“You’re right, I was complacent about politics,” he said. “I don’t have a voting record that I’m always proud of because the reality is, I didn’t always think my vote counted…...that complacency is gone and it’s all thanks to you.”