In their second debate – and the only such meeting at this, the northern end of Virginia’s largest congressional district, the state-spanning 5th – candidates John Douglass, the Democratic challenger, and Republican Rep. Robert Hurt defined their differences in front of a crowd of several hundred at Warrenton Middle School Monday night (Oct. 15).
It was a fiery debate by most accounts, with each candidate pressing points and not backing down – in many ways presaging the second presidential debate televised the following night. Many of the attendees were from Fauquier County, most of which votes for the first time Nov. 6 as part of the redrawn 5th district; more than a few attendees were from Rappahannock County, all of which became part of new 5th district this year.
Unlike the Tuesday presidential debate, however, which was purposefully staged in front of a crowd of undecided voters, one Rappahannock resident said he felt that he was “one of the very few undecideds there. The crowd felt very partisan, cheering and booing, although it was pretty evenly divided.”
“Evenly divided” would also aptly describe the candidates themselves, who were questioned Monday by Fauquier Times-Democrat executive editor Bill Walsh and FauquierNow.com editor Lawrence K. “Lou” Emerson and kept on point, and on time, by Warrenton attorney Philip Mulford (who is most well known, appropriately enough, as a divorce mediator).
An array of hot-button issues were discussed Monday both by first-term Rep. Hurt, a former General Assembly member, and Douglass, a retired Air Force brigadier general who’s held high-level defense-advisory posts under both Reagan and Clinton. Topics ranged from abortion (Hurt being pro-life, Douglass shouting, “No means no!” at one point to underscore his belief that the government should keep out of people’s bedrooms) and campaign finance reform to taxes and immigration laws.
As he did in an interview earlier this year with the Rappahannock News, Hurt attempted to distance himself from his party but blamed the Democrat-controlled Senate for not being able to “fix the economy.” He promised a balanced budget, more jobs and paying down the country’s debt.
At one point, Douglass attacked Hurt for signing fiscal conservative Grover Norquist’s no-tax-increase pledge.
“[The 5th District] needs investment,” Douglass said. “It’s the House that’s in charge of raising revenue for our country, but my opponent took a pledge to a person in Washington that made the House’s responsibility dysfunctional. He took a pledge to some guy named Grover Norquist. Who the hell ever heard of Grover Norquist? I don’t think Grover Norquist’s name is in the Constitution.”
Douglass also spent some time distancing himself from his own party, or at least President Obama, saying, much as he did in a Rappahannock News interview a few weeks back, that he would bring U.S. troops in Afghanistan home immediately if it was up to him and spend the money on economic growth at home.
Energy and natural-resource sustainability further helped separate the candidates, with Hurt saying he favored domestic drilling and private industry research and development in sustainable energy programs, believing the private sector is very well equipped to tackle clean energy needs. Douglass said he supports a significant investment in government programs and research into alternative energy.
As the debate drew to a close, Douglass concentrated his message on Hurt’s role in lifting the ban on uranium mining in Virginia, citing a conflict of interest: Hurt’s father has a financial tie to uranium mining. Hurt vehemently denied any bias based on self-interest, leading the candidates to repeatedly call each other liars.
“This is a big job,” wrote Huntly resident Nol Putnam after attending the debate. “Congressman Hurt came off young, not very experienced and certainly not ready for the heavy lifting of representing us in the 5th district. Gen. Douglass offered specifics, concrete examples and generally reflected his knowledge of the workings of government and foreign affairs gained by his years of service in the military . . .”
Hurt’s campaign has raised $1.7 million, roughly twice what Douglass has (and half of Hurt’s support came from political action committees, according to Federal Election Commission statistics, while closer to 80 percent of Douglass’ money came from individual donors). Though polls consistently put Hurt ahead of his challenger, Douglass has waged a tenacious fight – but he struck at least one Rappahannock voter as a bit too aggressive.
“I went in there pretty much 100-percent undecided,” said Chris Parrish, a county supervisor from Viewtown and a longtime moderate – meaning independent-minded – Republican. “I have to say that at this point I would vote for Hurt. I could change my mind at any moment, but he seemed sincere and humble – when he didn’t know an answer, he said he didn’t know – but more likely, based on his record of working across party lines to get things done when he was in the General Assembly, seemed the more effective choice. Douglass came off as a bit pugnacious.”
The Fauquier Times-Democrat’s Jay Pinsky contributed to this report.