Health care, immigration and COVID-19 took center stage at a debate Tuesday between candidates running for Georgia’s hotly contested 7th Congressional District seat ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
Dr. Rich McCormick, an emergency room doctor and the Republican nominee, focused on his experience treating COVID-19 patients since March as proof he knows how to combat the disease in hospitals and in the economy.
But his Democratic opponent, Georgia State University professor Carolyn Bourdeaux, slammed McCormick for several statements in recent months in which he appeared to echo President Donald Trump in downplaying the virus, arguing the Republican doctor should know better.
Disputes between the two congressional hopefuls similar to how to handle the COVID-19 crisis going forward played out over several issues in Tuesday’s debate hosted by the Atlanta Press Club, including whether to abandon the controversial 287(g) immigration enforcement program and how to improve health care for district residents.
“I got into this race because our elected officials have lost their line of sight to the people of this district, and my opponent represents the positions and policies that have failed us and that have gotten us into this mess now,” Bourdeaux said.
“[Bourdeaux] stands for larger government, more government solutions, more ideas that are based on a centralization of those solutions,” McCormick said. “I stand for believing in people. I believe in business owners more than bureaucrats.”
Covering most of Gwinnett County and part of Forsyth County, the 7th District race is expected to be close. Current seat-holder U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, a Republican who is not seeking re-election, narrowly defeated Bourdeaux in 2018 by fewer than 500 votes to win a fourth term.
Bourdeaux, a former state budget advisor who is making her second run at the seat, has mirrored state and federal Democratic candidates in pushing health-care issues to the front of the race, arguing Republican leaders botched the COVID-19 response while trying to tear down the Affordable Care Act.
“It is morally wrong, it is fiscally irresponsible, and I am here to make sure the people of this district have the health care that they need,” Bourdeaux said Tuesday.
McCormick has leaned on bedrock Republican stances for his campaign, evidenced by his support for changing the extra weekly unemployment checks for laid-off workers during the pandemic from a flat $600 to an amount calculated based on an employee’s pre-pandemic wages. He has also accused U.S. House Democratic leaders of blocking another round of COVID-19 relief.
“We need to have autonomy and we need to push this down to medical professionals,” McCormick said. “Stop having the bureaucracies get in the way of progress.”
Bourdeaux punched back Tuesday, noting 120 doctors and infectious disease experts have urged the Medical Association of Georgia to abandon its endorsement of McCormick over his calls to quickly reopen sections of the economy amid the virus.
“One of the reasons it is so shocking to me that you continue to downplay the virus is you see the front-line impact of it,” Bourdeaux said.
McCormick countered that because he has “been on the front lines intubating patients,” he has seen how only certain segments of the population are at serious risk from the virus such as the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.
His campaign has also accused the 120 doctors calling for his endorsement to be dropped of being partisan in favor of Democratic leaders and candidates via campaign and cause donations.
“I’m just telling you what I’m seeing first-hand,” McCormick said. “And I think we can get back to work safely.”
Immigration reform is also a key issue for the 7th District, which has seen a growing immigrant population in recent years and has adopted the 287(g) information-sharing program between the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Bourdeaux said she would abolish the program if elected, calling it a tool to harass local Latino communities. She also slammed McCormick for seeking to woo immigrant voters while simultaneously supporting more hardline policies like reducing overall entry and no longer granting citizenship to those born in the U.S.
“Rich McCormick talks a good game about immigrants,” Bourdeaux said. “But he is supported by NumbersUSA, an extreme anti-immigrant group.”
McCormick dismissed Bourdeaux’s attack, calling it “a bunch of lies” while arguing many immigrants in the district support the 287(g) program because it helps weed out undocumented persons who may have criminal histories.
“To say that it’s better and safer to not put violent criminals out of the United States who are from another country is certainly not safe,” McCormick said. “I think that’s double-speak and typical hypocrisy from the left.”
Early voting for the Nov. 3 general election started Monday and runs through Oct. 30.
This story has been updated to clarify Dr. McCormick’s position on the $600 in extra unemployment checks during the pandemic and to note his campaign’s stance on doctors opposed to his endorsement by the Medical Association of Georgia.