The first debate among the eight Republicans seeking the nomination to take on 6th District Democratic Rep. John Delaney this year was an often lively affair, while revealing few policy differences among the contenders.
Appearing at a forum Thursday night in Gaithersburg sponsored by the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, all eight said they supported term limits for members of Congress, and all voiced strong support for the Second Amendment—and opposition to efforts to restrict gun ownership.
“We own guns, and I’m a good shot. Any of you want to take me on, feel free,” Amie Hoeber, a Potomac-based national security consultant and the only woman in the race for the GOP nomination, declared to applause. “I will not stand idly by while this right of ours is being threatened.”
But Hoeber later found herself in a cross fire over the issue of abortion, when one member of the panel posing questions—Brian Griffiths of the conservative “Red Maryland” blog—noted Hoeber’s past involvement in the National Women’s Political Caucus. “Do you support abortion, and, if not, why did you have an association with such a militantly pro-abortion organization?” Griffiths asked.
“I do not think that is a reasonable issue,” replied Hoeber, a onetime deputy undersecretary of the Army. Alluding to the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, she declared, “That is settled law, and I have sworn on many occasions as a government and federal employee…I will uphold the constitution and the laws of this country.”
As Griffiths continued to press the matter, Hoeber, 74, asserted, “I am a mother, I am a stepmother, I’m a grandmother. I think I understand in ways unique in this group of candidates before you about the preciousness of life. But I believe the abortion question has been settled by law.”
Her response prompted one of her leading rivals for the nomination, Frederick County Del. David Vogt, to initially ignore a question about education policy to jump into the fray over abortion.
“To be very clear, I protect life—whether it’s an unborn child, or someone that’s died,” said Vogt, 31, who repeatedly touted his eight years of active duty in the Marine Corps during the debate. “I was endorsed by Maryland Right to Life, and I am the only one with a voting record that proves that.”
Another contender, Washington County Commissioners President Terry Baker, later chimed in, “I’m pro-life, and no support to Child Parenthood.” He quickly corrected himself to say “Planned Parenthood.” The latter group was at the center of a controversy in Congress last year over allegations that it had discussed selling body parts from aborted fetuses for profit.
Yet another candidate for the District 6 nomination, Laytonsville businessman Frank Howard, remained quiet during the debate on the issue. Questioned afterward, he reiterated the position he took last year when he ran for a state Senate seat in Montgomery County—that, while personally opposed to abortion, he does not favor overturning Roe v. Wade via a constitutional amendment.
Meanwhile, Hoeber put some distance between herself and the Republican leadership of Congress on another controversial issue: a 12-nation free trade deal with Asia known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP.
“I have some major objections to it,” she said. “NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993] cost Maryland a number of jobs. The TPP is very much a reflection of NAFTA in its approach to managing trade. I think we have to look very carefully at how it would affect Maryland.”
An unusual alliance of President Obama and leading congressional Republicans are behind TPP, which is strongly opposed by many leading congressional Democrats. Delaney, however, has been one of a relative handful of Democrats to voice support for the deal.
In addition to Baker, Hoeber, Howard and Vogt, participants in Thursday’s forum at the Gaithersburg Holiday Inn included Scott Cheng of Montgomery Village, a physician and medical school instructor who was an unsuccessful candidate for state delegate in 2014; attorney Robin Ficker of Boyds, a perennial candidate for local and federal office; Christopher Mason, a candidate for Frederick County Council in 2014; and Harold Painter, a Gaithersburg accountant who also sought the District 6 nomination two years ago.
The 6th District has been represented since 2012 by Delaney—who was incorrectly identified twice during the debate as “Chris Delaney” by debate moderator Casey Aiken, a Rockville attorney. The district extends from Potomac and Gaithersburg 200 miles north and west to Garrett County on the western edge of Maryland. While redrawn in 2011 to make it more hospitable to a Democrat, Delaney in 2014 defeated Republican Dan Bongino by a narrow 50-48 percent margin.
Bongino has since moved to Florida, and Howard, a onetime campaign chairman for Bongino, is counting heavily on inheriting Bongino’s network of supporters. “Dan Bongino encouraged me to run, and I want to finish the great work he started,” Howard declared in his opening statement.
The influence of Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump was apparent throughout Thursday night’s debate, as several candidates took turns calling for restrictions on Syrian refugees coming into the United States—or advocating even more sweeping restrictions on immigration.
At times, some of the rhetoric also reflected Trump’s no-holds barred style.
“Let’s stop it for a while. Let’s get our own country under control until we consider letting others into our country,” Baker declared, while adding to scattered applause, “If I were in a war, the last people I’d want in my foxhole would be Clinton, Obama, Kerry—I’d have to take them out first.”
Perhaps the most unusual proposal of the evening came from Painter, who—when asked about how to relieve traffic on I-270—suggested moving “a lot of the federal government out of Washington, D.C.”
Said Painter: “There are parts of the federal government that have to be here—Defense Department, CIA, FBI, things like that. How about we move the Department of Agriculture to—I don’t know, Kansas City, or somewhere maybe where it belongs. We could fix a lot of the traffic problems around here by paring down the size of the federal government, by relocating some parts of it to places that make more sense for it to be.”
And clearly the most unusual pledge came from Mason, who—unlike the six other male candidates on the dais Thursday—was dressed casually rather than in a suit and tie. “We elect people into Congress who lie to us, and the dress of the liars are suits,” he said. “I will not be an empty suit, and I will never wear a suit if you elect me to Congress.”
He also vowed to donate the $174,000 annual salary he’d be paid as a member of Congress to paying down a national debt that is approaching $19 trillion. “Let that be the litmus test,” he declared.
Ficker, running for his fifth elective office in the past seven years—including a prior run for the 6th District Republican nomination in 2012—was true to his reputation as a colorful gadfly.
“I have a longstanding relationship with western Maryland,” he said. “Before [Delaney] was elected to Congress, he had no connection to western Maryland whatsoever. He thought Frostburg was in Siberia.”
And, Ficker noted, “I’m already ahead of Congressman Delaney in the votes. I’ve got two votes—mine and my son’s—because I live in the district. He and his wife don’t even live in the district, so they can’t vote for themselves. I’m ahead 2-0.”
Delaney lives in a section of Potomac that lies just outside the 6th District in the neighboring 8th District, the latter now represented by Rep. Chris Van Hollen. Responding to a question from one of the panelists, both Hoeber and Howard also acknowledged they are 8th District residents—while Bongino too lived outside the 6th District when he ran in 2014. The U.S. Constitution requires only that a member of Congress be a resident of the state that includes the district that he or she represents.