In their first direct encounter of a campaign that’s attracted increased national interest, U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall and Democratic challenger Carolyn Bourdeauxsat behind a plastic table Monday night in an overcrowded conference room in Peachtree Corners.
As the headliners of a forum that also included candidates for state legislative seats and a county commission spot, the contenders for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District dinged each other for their stances on health care and Medicaid, immigration and fundraising.
And they were granted the opportunity to ask each other a single question of their own, too.
Woodall, the Lawrenceville Republican who has represented the Gwinnett- and Forsyth-based district since 2011, asked Bourdeaux if she thought Democrat John Lewis – Georgia’s longest-serving congressman and one of Atlanta’s civil rights heroes -- was corrupt. It was a call back to an earlier Bourdeaux statement about candidates like Woodall (and Lewis) taking campaign contributions from special interest groups and political action committees.
“I think that we need to get special money out of politics. Period. And that is that,” Bourdeaux, a professor at Georgia State University, responded. “It is not the right game for us … Our congressman is funded by PACs, he is funded by lobbyists, he is not funded by you all.”
Woodall defended his use of such money, using an explanation that drew some chuckles from the crowd that well exceeded the seating arranged for 120 people.
“Rather than ask you for money through your campaign contributions to me,” Woodall said, “if you work for [Norcross-based packaging company] WestRock over here, you give WestRock money and WestRock writes that check to me, every penny I receive comes from you.”
Bourdeaux asked Woodall about his past votes to repeal the Obamacare, which she said would have returned patients to a system allowing insurance companies to deny coverage to patients with preexisting conditions.
“Don’t you care about those folks,” Bourdeaux asked, “or are you just afraid to stand up to the leadership in the House and to the president?”
Woodall took issue with the either-or scenario.
“Somehow that means you’re either corrupt or don’t care,” he said. “That’s politics at its worst. For somebody that has not even gotten elected yet, that’s a rotten start.”
Woodall has described the Affordable Care Act as an inflexible “one-size-fits-all policy” that has led to skyrocketing premiums for patients.
Bourdeaux, meanwhile, has called for safeguarding Obamacare, expanding Medicaid and creating a public health care option.
The congressional hopefuls were joined at Monday night’s forum by candidates running for a local commission seat (Republican incumbent Lynette Howard and Democratic challenger Ben Ku), as well as the contenders for a handful of legislative seats: Sen. Fran Millar and Sally Harrell for Senate District 40; Rep. Scott Hilton and Beth Moore for House District 95; and Matt Reeves, a Republican candidate for Senate District 48.
Reeves’ opponent in what may be a tightly contested race, Democrat Zahra Karinshak, was not present.
The local candidates had plenty of differences, but they all agreed on one thing: The answer to the hot-button question about arming schoolteachers.
“Having more guns on campus would not make me feel safer,” Moore said.
Said Hilton: “Heck no. That’s crazy.”
Gwinnett County has long been a reliable Republican stronghold, but that’s changing. The county voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016’s presidential election and a handful of Gwinnett seats in the General Assembly have turned blue in recent years. But Forsyth remains deeply Republican, and GOP officials have pointed to vote totals from this year’s party primaries to show they have a cushion against Democrats in the 7th.
The Cook Political Report, a non-partisan election analysis site, ranks the 7th District contest as “likely Republican.”
Still, the congressional contest has attracted increased interest from Democrats in Washington. The Democratic Congressional Candidate Committee, House Democrats’ campaign arm, last week named Bourdeaux to its Red to Blue program, which provides funding and organizational support to what it sees as its most competitive recruits. And Bourdeaux has consistently out-fundraised Woodall over the last year.
Bourdeaux said Monday that people are “fed up.”
Woodall said he’s “supremely confident.”
“To suggest that we’re having some sort of rebellion in the 7th District of Georgia? Just nonsense,” he said, referencing Bourdeaux’s out-of-state campaign contributions. “To suggest there are a lot of angry New Yorkers and Californians who want to see Georgians do different things? That’s absolutely true.”
Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article.