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Hart, Miller-Meeks Spar In Final Debate In Race For 2nd District

State Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks and former State Sen. Rita Hart faced off in the final debate of the cycle Thursday night in the race for Iowa's 2nd Congressional District.
Courtesy of KWQC
State Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks and former State Sen. Rita Hart faced off in the final debate of the cycle Thursday night in the race for Iowa's 2nd Congressional District.

Candidates for Iowa’s 2ndCongressional District faced off Thursday night in the final debate of this cycle, hosted by KWQC and the Quad City Times. Much of the focus once again centered on the coronavirus pandemic and healthcare policy, with each of the candidates taking shots at the other’s records.

Former State Senator Rita Hart, D-Wheatland, and State Senator Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Ottumwa, are fighting to be the first woman to represent southeast Iowa in the United States Congress.

Sparring over health care

Both voiced their support for health care coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, a protection guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act. And both criticized the other on this issue, underscoring the outsize importance of health care as a political issue during the coronavirus pandemic, and the extent to which public support for provisions of the ACA has solidified.

“While my opponent says that she has a plan, that she wants to protect existing conditions, the fact is there’s been four years that have gone by here, where the Republicans could’ve put a plan forward. They have not done it,” Hart said. “That makes me think that it really doesn’t exist.”

Miller-Meeks has long been a critic of the ACA, and made her opposition to the law a focus of her campaign for the district back in 2014.

Still, Miller-Meeks denies that she wants to repeal the landmark law, as the Trump administration is currently attempting to do, through a legal challenge that’s scheduled to go before the U.S. Supreme Court the week after Election Day.

“Health care needs to be affordable, it needs to be portable, it needs to be accessible and it needs to be able to give us choice. I have long argued for this and the ACA failed us in that regard,” Miller-Meeks said. “If it’s such a great bill, why are we struggling to have this issue now?”

Instead, Miller-Meeks again sought to paint Hart’s support of a bill paving the way for a Farm Bureau health coverage plan during her time in the state Senate as an attempt to “deny” Iowans coverage due to pre-existing conditions.

“There’s only one person on this stage who has voted to deny coverage of pre-existing conditions, and that’s Rita Hart,” Miller-Meeks argued.

Hart has repeatedly countered that this is a misrepresentation of the bill, which she says expanded access by extending limited health coverage to self-employed Iowans who did not have access to employer-funded insurance.

Under the plan, the Farm Bureau could turn customers away or charge them more for pre-existing conditions, the Des Moines Register reported in 2018.

“I voted for legislation that did not take coverage away from one single person,” Hart said. “That was a Republican plan that created a program that existed that would help the constituents in my district, who could not afford, who were not eligible for the subsidies on the exchange.”

Both agree on need for additional COVID stimulus

Both candidates agreed that Congress should work together to approve another round of stimulus funding to help communities and individuals recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Both voiced support for additional help for those who are unemployed, are struggling to make rent or mortgage payments, or who work in hard-hit industries such as hospitality and retail.

Congress has remained deadlocked on the latest round of potential funding, with the Senate and White House pushing for a smaller funding package than the House.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s $2.2 trillion plan lost support from some Democrats who argued the chamber should compromise, including Rep. Cindy Axne, D-West Des Moines.

Hart deflected a question on how she would have voted on the bill, but both candidates said Congress must come to an agreement.

Hopes of crossover voters

The 24 county district has long been held by outgoing Rep. Dave Loebsack, a Democrat, but was carried by President Donald Trump in 2016.

According to an analysis by the Cook Political Report, the race for the southeast Iowa seat is considered a tossup.

Both candidates were asked by a moderator why their party would be best suited to represent the district, which includes Iowa City, Davenport, Clinton, Ottumwa, Pella, Fairfield, and many small cities and rural communities in between.

Both seemed to try to put some daylight between themselves and their own parties, at a time when partisan divisions are so enflamed.

“I’ve been talking to people all across this district about the issues that matter to them. And that’s what’s important to me. It’s about how I can best represent them, not necessarily how the party can best represent them,” Hart said.

Miller-Meeks has described herself as a “pro-Trump conservative,” but in answering the question by a moderator also seemed to try to differentiate herself from her party, which has overwhelmingly unified behind the president.

“Both parties have platforms and you can look at the platforms to see what the platforms represent but I’m a candidate running a race, not running a party,” Miller-Meeks said.

Recent polling in Iowa shows a statistical dead heat in the race at the top of the ticket between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. It remains to be seen to what extent southeast Iowans will once again split their votes across parties in the two federal races.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter