CHARLOTTE, N.C. (CN) – A televised debate between congressional candidates in North Carolina Wednesday night quickly evolved into a punch and counterpunch session as the participants quarreled over what described as “two very different visions of America.”
Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready are running in the district stretching from Charlotte to Fayetteville, North Carolina, and polls suggest it is going to be a tight race right through Election Day.
Already, the race to represent the state’s 9th Congressional district — considered one of the most competitive in the country — is also the most expensive in the state, with super PACs alone contributing a combined $3 million to their preferred candidates, according to the Federal Election Commission.
To date, McCready is handily leading in the fundraising, having brought in $4.3 million as of Tuesday. That’s more than double the $1.6 million raised by Harris.
By comparison, Democrat Kathy Manning has raised about $2.9 million in the state’s second most expensive House race — in the 13th Congressional District — compared to Republican incumbent Rep. Ted Bud’s $1.9 million.
The 13th Congressional District is located to the north and east of Charlotte, running roughly from Greensboro to Mooresville, North Carolina.
But all eyes were on Charlotte Wednesday night, where Harris and McCready clashed before a live audience in a debate sponsored by Spectrum News.
Early on McCready opined that there isn’t anywhere in the country “with a great difference on the ballot” and proceeded to lambast Harris as a hardened ideologue who has been lying to the public to court their vote.
“Mark Harris is not someone who would put country over party,” McCready said. “He’s putting his own extreme ideology over everything else.”
Harris responded by saying he was “sick and tired of my position being misrepresented.”
He then went on to attack McCready for his “liberal agenda.”
“This race at its core is about one thing,” Harris said. “That is, who calls the shots in Washington.”
At one point the debate moderator told the audience he’d gladly allow the candidates to keep arguing, regardless of the time it took them to make their points, but that is not what the campaigns agreed to.
When it came to policy, the candidates sharply disagreed on issues ranging from immigration reform to climate change.
Harris said he believes in smaller government, lower taxes and fiscal responsibility, and if that makes him “extreme,” he will accept the critique.
Saying he believes the federal government should stay out of local education, Harris said if elected he plans to try to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. McCready scoffed at this, arguing the department provides critical funds for students with disabilities and for students from low-income families.
The two also disagreed on border security. While both said they were in favor of greater control of the border between the U.S. and Mexico, McCready said the best way to achieve the desired results is to craft a comprehensive, bipartisan plan built largely on utilizing surveillance technology.
Harris prefers President Donald Trump plan to build a wall, describing it as the only way to adequately secure the border.
In a rare moment of agreement, both men said they support term limits for House and Senate members, but they disagreed on the details. Harris wants a three-term limit for House members and a two-term limit for members of the Senate.
McCready said he prefers what he described as an “up or out” approach like one that is used in the military. “If you’re not leading and if you are not getting the job done, you can go home,” he said.
From there, hot-button issues involving the candidates pervaded the discourse, including mentions of Nancy Pelosi, attack ads that targeted both campaigns, and Harris’s controversial sermons that he gave as a Baptist pastor.
Video clips of Harris telling women in a congregation to submit to their husbands were taken out of context, he said on Wednesday. McCready clarified that his criticism of the sermons was not an attack on his opponent’s faith.
Harris also said that if McCready is elected, he will support the elevation of Rep. Nancy Pelosi to speaker of the House.
“A vote for McCready is a vote for Pelosi,” Harris said.
McCready responded by saying he wants a new leader and assured voters he would not vote for Pelosi.
He then added, “Mark, you are not running against Pelosi.”
While the Democrat and Republican traded blows inside, Libertarian candidate Jeff Scott waited outside the theater.
“I was not invited,” he said.
Scott said third party candidates are often pushed to the sidelines when it comes to televised debates, but the public ignores them at their peril.
“If people keep thinking about it as splitting the vote, we are all basically doomed,” he said.