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Hart, Miller-Meeks Face Off In 2nd Congressional District Debate

Candidates Rita Hart, D - Wheatland, and Iowa Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R - Ottumwa, took questions from reporters and discussed their platforms, concerns and future plans. David Yepsen, host of Iowa Press on Iowa PBS, moderated Thursday evening's debate.

Candidates in Iowa's 2nd Congressional District faced off at a debate Thursday night in the fight for the open seat to represent southeast Iowa. Recent polling shows Democrats have a slight edge, but the race between Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Rita Hart remains close.

Candidates for Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District sparred over each other’s records, and fielded questions on healthcare, the coronavirus, and the economy during Thursday night’s debate at Iowa PBS studios. Republican State Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Democratic former State Sen. Rita Hart are vying for the empty seat in southeast Iowa, due to the retirement of longtime Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack.

Uniting a battleground district

Both candidates present compelling biographies that could arguably suit them well to the district, which includes Iowa City, Davenport, Clinton and scores of rural communities.

Miller-Meeks of Ottumwa worked her way through community college, enlisted in the Army, ultimately becoming a nurse and then an ophthalmologist, and was a past director of the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Hart of Wheatland worked as a teacher and administrator in rural public schools for more than two decades, and farms alongside her husband, before being named the running mate of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell in 2018.

Whoever wins Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District will be faced with the challenge of uniting and representing a large swath of voters who may strongly disagree with them; the district’s has been represented by a Democrat since 2006, but the district swung for President Donald Trump by four points in 2016.

The first question of the night raised just this challenge: how to unite voters after Election Day.

“I think that the most important thing you can do is to be accessible, which is somewhat challenging during a pandemic,” Miller-Meeks noted, “but to be yourself, to be authentic and then discuss the issues with them.”

Hart said she learned how to listen and value opposing viewpoints at the kitchen table, alongside her Republican mother and Democratic father.

“That's where I learned to have an opinion, to have that backed up by facts. And to be able to tell people what I believed,” Hart said. “But I also learned more importantly that it's really important that you listen to the other side.”

How to address healthcare

Signature government programs were up for debate, including the fate of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Social Security.

The U.S. Supreme Court is slated to weigh the future of the ACA the week after Election Day. Miller-Meeks has long criticized the law for limiting patient choice and not sufficiently holding down costs. In past years she’s also voiced support for repealing the law, which Hart criticized.

“The thing that we cannot do is to go backwards. And so that’s why it’s been very troubling to see the Republicans continue to go down this pathway of trying to take away the Affordable Care Act and the provisions that people have found to be so important to their families,” Hart said.

Hart faced questions for supporting a bill that allowed for Farm Bureau health plans that were meant to be a cheaper alternative to ACA coverage, but could deny Iowans’ coverage for preexisting conditions.

Hart defended her vote, saying constituents in her district asked her to support the Republican-led bill, and she felt she had no better alternatives to provide a stopgap for Iowans who couldn’t afford premiums under the ACA.

“It was the only thing on the table. It wasn't a great plan, but it certainly was the only thing that I could do to help my constituents,” Hart said. “So I never regret voting for my constituents.”

Miller-Meeks hit back.

“You just heard my opponent say she was concerned it didn’t cover preexisting conditions,” Miller-Meeks said. “It was a loophole.”

Miller-Meeks meanwhile faced a question about advocating for raising the retirement age in previous years. She did not directly answer if she still supports this stance, but said solutions must be found to keep signature government programs solvent.

“We do need to look at, how do we continue to fund our programs such as Social Security and Medicare?” Miller-Meeks said “There’s a variety of things that you can do but that conversation needs to be had and we as a country need to come up with solutions for that. Adding more people to Medicare may not be the solution.”

Agreement and disagreement

On a number of issues, Miller-Meeks and Hart often disagreed on the extent to which the federal government should play a role in setting policy, including on raising the minimum wage and ensuring broadband connectivity in rural Iowa.

Points of agreement including the need for further coronavirus aid, including additional unemployment benefits, the need for increased infrastructure investment and a fix for the state’s childcare shortage. Both candidates also agreed that farmers should play a larger role in addressing climate change and harnessing on-farm carbon sequestration.

Recent polling suggests the race remains a close one. A recent Des Moines Register-Mediacom Iowa Poll shows Democrats have a slight lead in the 2nd Congressional District, but that edge was still within the poll’s margin of error.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter