Four GOP candidates vying to fill Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat took the stage Monday night, giving voters a chance to see where they stand on issues ahead of the May 17 primary election.
Real estate developer Jeff Bartos and conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, both of Montgomery County, Everett Stern, a West Chester business owner, and George Bochetto, a Philadelphia attorney, participated in the televised debate at Villanova University.
Meanwhile, Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor, Carla Sands, an ambassador to Denmark under the Trump administration, and David McCormick, former chief executive of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, opted not to attend Monday night’s public forum, with Sands challenging them to a separate televised debate.
The absent candidates have faced criticism over their residency, with opponents and members of the Democratic Party dubbing them “carpetbaggers” — an attack repeated by Bartos while answering questions during the 90-minute debate.
Here’s where the candidates stand on government and policy issues and what they say they’ll prioritize if elected to replace U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh, who retires at year’s end:
GOVERNANCE AND STRATEGY
Monday night’s debate saw several outbursts and attacks on opponents from some of the candidates.
Stern repeatedly called out Barnette for repeating baseless claims of election fraud and for traveling to Washington for the rally hosted by former President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, 2020. Bochetto questioned Stern for recognizing President Joe Biden as the legitimate winner of the 2020 election, saying: “I don’t know what page you’re on, but I’m not on it.”
Before answering his first question, Bartos gave a wave to the three candidates who backed out of the public forum, dubbing them “political tourists.”
But asked how they will retain support from the GOP and appeal to Democrats, the candidates touted their values and said they will recognize and develop policies to help people, regardless of their party affiliation.
“I understand what’s important, not just to Republicans, but also to sensible-thinking Democrats,” Bochetto said, stressing the importance of educational opportunities. “I am not a one-trick pony or someone that does not understand the value of human decency and human respect for others.”
Bartos, emphasizing his efforts to support local business owners during the COVID-19 statewide shutdown, said he never asked someone for their political affiliation.
“All of those people, thousands-plus small business owners, thousands of their employees and their families, an army is going to be out there knocking on doors,” Bartos said. “And every Democrat running, every Democrat running, is going to have to answer for these lockdowns and shutdowns.”
Barnette argued that Democrats, except those who “are not just completely sold out to this progressive liberal wing of the Democratic Party,” want what “everyone else wants.” She added that the Republican Party has seen growing support.
Breaking from the group, Stern called for a change to the Republican Party, saying people are leaving because of far-right extremism and false claims surrounding the 2020 election.
“What we have to do is change the party and make a significant difference in how the party is behaving,” Stern said, adding that Trump should not define the GOP.
Every candidate said they support the filibuster, which can stop bills from reaching the Senate floor for a vote and lead to hours of speeches.
Barnette, Bartos, and Bochetto emphasized recent efforts from Democrats in Congress to abolish the filibuster to pass measures such as immigration reform, climate legislation, health care reform, and voter protections.
Stern, however, said he supports the filibuster for negotiations and compromise.
“It’s meant for discussion and extended discourse,” Stern said. “It’s not meant to block Democrats or to prevent that one vote or prevent the Democrats from doing X or Z.”
EDUCATION AND THE ECONOMY
Asked how they would invest in educational opportunities in the commonwealth, the candidates stressed the importance of creating jobs.
“From a national perspective, we need to begin to focus on the economy and growing our economy — not just sending out welfare checks or stimulus checks just to float people by,” Barnette said. “But we need to create an environment where our economy is beginning to grow.”
She suggested stabilizing the U.S. dollar to create growth to establish additional opportunities.
“Look, students follow jobs,” Bochetto said. “And whether you’re a university student, a [vocational] student, a student in any of our preparatory venues, you want a good job. And in order to keep students in this area, we need to provide good jobs, track good jobs, improve the environment that businesses want to do business here, businesses want to invest here.”
Bochetto said Democratic leadership in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are “chasing away our businesses.”
Stern’s response was simple: Democracy. He argued that society relies on a functioning democracy, something he said needs to be repaired in Pennsylvania.
“The capital markets are affected. Jobs are affected. National security is affected,” he said. “Everything is affected. In this state, we are so divided.”
Bartos said he’s running to save “main street Pennsylvania.” To do that, he proposed “unleashing Pennsylvania’s unbelievable natural resources” to foster job growth and development.
“Energy should be our No. 1 export here in Pennsylvania, not our young people who are fleeing Pennsylvania in droves for better opportunities all over the nation,” he said.
Every candidate vocalized support for energy investments, with Stern touching on fracking and coal manufacturing only briefly before moving on to working with candidates across the aisle and combating disinformation.
Bartos, Barnette, and Bochetto bashed the Biden administration’s energy policies and called for fracking investments and pipeline development, including the Keystone XL pipeline.
FOREIGN POLICY AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
Bartos, Barnette, and Bochetto attacked the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and called for tougher leadership, specifically with the ongoing conflicts between Russia and Ukraine and China and Taiwan.
Stern said China and Russia evaluate the strength of the United States based on its democracy, which he described as “weak” and “vulnerable.”
“Is the United States going to stand up and back up our obligation to defend [Taiwan]?” Bochetto said. “Well, if you look at President Biden’s behavior in Afghanistan, it sure doesn’t look that way. It sure doesn’t look like he’s going to be forceful and strong.”
Bartos said the Biden administration “betrayed our men and women in uniform” after withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, describing the decision as “weak.” Barnette said the country’s response to foreign conflicts should be “forceful” and “immediate.”
Democrats running for U.S. Senate include U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-17th District, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia.
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