Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, met his Democratic challenger TJ Cox on the debate stage for the first and only time Thursday, as the two engaged in a one-hour discussion laden with fierce disagreements on many of the California’s 21st Congressional District’s key issues: water, health care and immigration.
Valadao staunchly defended his voting record, pointing out several clearly false statements about his supposed alignment with President Donald Trump and his failed attempts at immigration reform legislation. He renewed his support for Republican tax cuts and attacks on the Affordable Care Act, while describing himself as a hometown public servant facing off against an outsider candidate.
Cox was just as forceful on the attack, claiming that Valadao’s vote on the ACA repeal would have left half of his district without coverage. He said Valadao failed to deliver immigration solutions – despite his party being in total control of the federal government. Although not an elected official, he touted his own record of bringing health care and jobs to the community through his businesses.
The debate was broadcast live and hosted by local NBC affiliates KGET (Bakersfield) and KSEE24 (Fresno). Bakersfield anchor Jim Scott and Fresno anchor Evan Onstot acted as both moderators and a panel, asking questions while also enforcing the rules.
The candidates gave 90-second opening statements and had 90 seconds to answer each question, with Scott and Onstot sometimes offering 30-second rebuttals.
The debate was not open to the public.
The two candidates kept a relatively even keel and more or less followed the rules throughout the debate.
One exception came when Valadao forcefully interjected with a “no” when Cox, for the second time in about a minute, claimed Valadao voted against bringing his own immigration bill to the floor.
“I have to respond to that,” Valadao interjected, and his request was granted. “That was absolutely not true whatsoever.”
Granted some time by the moderators, Valadao explained his bill – which he and fellow Valley Republican Jeff Denham worked to push through over the summer – never came to the floor. The authors fell just two signatures short of the necessary votes, which Valadao attributed to partisan entrenchment by both parties.
Valadao’s version of events was widely reported over the summer, with multiple outlets claiming the heavily conservative Freedom Caucus would not support Valadao’s bill due to its aid for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients – something conservative Republicans often refer to as “amnesty.”
The moderators were pressed into real action only once, when they had to ask Cox several times to share what he would do about what they called a “migrant caravan” moving toward the U.S.-Mexico border.
In his original answer, Cox called the migration an example of “failed leadership” due to the government not aiding Guatemala and Honduras during turbulent times. He claimed this would not have happened under his watch, and that it was another byproduct of Republicans’ failures on immigration reform.
Onstot pressed him, however, noting there was “no time machine” to change the fact that the migrants were coming.
Cox then said the government already has the processes for dealing with them: They must apply for asylum.
Valadao took a starkly different approach to the question.
He disputed Cox’s claim that the government had done nothing to help these people at home. He then said most of the migrants weren’t fleeing violence and hardship in their home countries, but rather they sought economic opportunities in the U.S..
“These groups are growing in number because they want to literally overrun our system on the border,” Valadao said. He added that Congress will have to immediately shift more money to border security, and he claimed the migrants all knew that Democrats in this country would seek to help them.
The two differed greatly on the impact and motives behind Trump’s recent executive memorandum on water project environmental requirements.
Valadao denied it was a political stunt designed to help himself and other Republicans in the election, saying it was the result of nearly two years of work. He claimed it will eventually bring more water to the Valley.
Cox said it was merely a memo to Trump’s secretaries with no dollars, legislation or immediate water relief attached. He also claimed it did nothing to address a key problem in the 21st: A lack of clean drinking water in poor, rural communities.
On health care, Cox hammered Valadao for a “cruel” and “reckless” vote, which he said would have stripped 108,000 of Valadao’s constituents of their coverage.
He then claimed Republicans were now gunning for entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, while also looking to strip coverage from those with per-existing conditions.
Valadao was one of the final Republican holdouts in the controversial health care debate, ultimately voting yes to move the bill to the Senate, where it was defeated.
He said Thursday he did this to keep local doctors from fleeing his district, which has a major physician shortage. He added that he had to do something to change the status quo and give his constituents better variety in selecting health care.
Valadao said Republican health care plans will protect those with preexisting conditions.
He also denied plans to charge what Cox called a “senior tax” – a Republican plan to charge seniors five times as much for their health care coverage. He said this adjustment augmented an Affordable Care Act element that was charging seniors and young people three times as much, and would thus save money for young families.
Cox then turned it around on Valadao, saying the incumbent had just, by his own admission, said Republicans now wanted to increase senior insurance costs from three times the normal rate to five.
The Fresno Democrat supports a single-payer system. He noted, and Onstot agreed with him, that several other countries spend far less on health care than the U.S. does while also providing universal coverage.
Valadao said people in those countries often choose to be treated in the U.S., which has a higher quality of doctors and facilities.
However, the Republican displayed his willingness to buck his party – which may explain his continued popularity in a majority-Democratic district – by saying he would be willing to work with California on protective legislation should the state pass a fiscally sound single-payer plan.
99 percent with Trump?
Throughout the debate, Cox would occasionally fall back into speaking on key campaign talking points. The most notable has been screamed from the rooftops for months by both Cox and the national Democrats who’ve sunk major time and effort into the highly coveted seat; Valadao votes with Trump 99 percent of the time.
Scott pointed out that this was not true, as did Valadao. That number came from an analysis of just a small fraction – about 100 – of the more than 1,200 votes Valadao has made since Trump took office.
When pressed on this, Cox said the number was accurate for “the important votes,” though his advertisements, mailers and various statements to the media have made no such distinction.
On Friday, Cox spokesman Phillip Vander Klay said the 99 percent figure came from the election forecast website 538’s Trump score, which looks at the votes relative to bills Trump has taken a public position on.
Cox did not mention this Thursday, but Vander Klay said no additional context was needed and challenged the idea that it was a false figure.
The figure does not take into account any votes in which Trump or his staff may have made his opinion known to Congress but not to the public.
The two pushed each other hard on tax reform.
Cox claimed it only helped the rich and drove up the deficit so much that Republicans are now attacking entitlements, which he said was their true plan all along.
Valadao said 83 percent of his district doubled their tax return – an average of $1,700.
Cox countered by saying that money “did not trickle down” as those families ended up spend most of it on increased health care costs.
Residency and aftermath
As the debate drew to a close, Valadao seized on a question about Cox’s questionable residency and late entry into the race. Cox does not live in the 21st, and he claimed principal residency in a Washington, D.C., suburb until confronted by The Bee.
Valadao said he had no such problem. His home had been his home for life. His kids go to the same high school he did. He knows everyone in his district.
After the debate, Valadao’s campaign staff refused several interview requests from The Bee.
Cox said he felt the debate went great and expressed disappointment that it would be the only one. He claimed Valadao had refused multiple challenges and requests, including several from local FOX, PBS and ABC affiliates. He said Valadao was also unwilling to meet with him in any capacity in public.
He said the next few weeks will be spent canvasing and attempting to spur voter turnout.