After facing off at a March 3 forum at A-B Tech sponsored by the Buncombe County Republican Party, incumbent Rep. Patrick McHenry bested challenger Ken Fortenberry in a straw poll, 41 votes to 23.
Both candidates are vying to be the party's nominee in the 10th Congressional District, which was redrawn last year to include most of Asheville. Stretching southeast all the way to Gaston County, the district’s demographics seem to favor a Republican victory in November, according to voter history data provided by the State Board of Elections.
"If you love what's happening in Washington … then continue the course — keep sending the same people up there," Fortenberry told the 70 or so people attending the forum. Noting that McHenry, first elected to Congress at age 29, is now serving his fourth consecutive term, Fortenberry added, "We don't need a career politician who’s never had a real job."
The challenger, who owns the news@norman newspaper in Denver, N.C., said his experience in investigative journalism would give him the skill set needed to make sense of the "mess" in Washington.
"The media helps set the agenda for the politicians in this country," he asserted, "but I'm a man of conviction."
If elected, Fortenberry said his top priorities would be big cuts in spending and regulation. He also took aim at President Barack Obama's health-care reform.
"The government doesn't have any right to mandate medical care for anyone,” Fortenberry declared. “No one is entitled to medical care or insurance: The word entitlement makes my blood boil. I believe you should have reasonable access … but no one is entitled."
Asked for specifics on how he would improve on Obama's plan, however, he said: "What would take its place? I don't have the answer."
Fortenberry also advocated dismantling the Education Department, declaring, "It has to go. I have a real problem with public education. … The federal government has no business telling us how to run our schools." He added, "In my heart I'm a conservative, and I'll stay true to that."
McHenry, meanwhile, defended his record, noting that outside groups have ranked him as one of the most conservative members of Congress. A deputy majority whip, McHenry helps manage the Republican Party’s legislative priorities on the House floor.
He also blamed the sluggish economy of the last few years on Obama, saying the president has "created a regulatory environment … and tax regime that sends jobs overseas.” Noting that he voted against Obama's health-care, banking-reform and job-stimulus plans, McHenry said he wants to slash spending and "rein in the EPA."
In terms of energy policy, the incumbent asserted, "This president is so beholden to very leftist groups and environmental extremists that he's unwilling to harness our own natural resources.” The government, he said, should allow vastly more oil drilling and other resource harvesting on public lands.
On the tax front, McHenry said he wants a "fairer, flatter tax." The federal government’s chief role, he maintained, is national security, and practically every other federal department, program and initiative needs to be analyzed for cuts. McHenry also advocated eliminating the Labor Department, which he said is "beholden to Big Labor."
"Any department not specified in the Constitution should be eliminated," McHenry proclaimed, adding that any federal transportation and education funding should be doled out to states in the form of block grants, rather than administered by federal agencies.
As for "Obamacare,” McHenry said the plan needs to be replaced in "a methodical way." He advocated a three-pronged approach: allowing insurance to be purchased across state lines; allowing small businesses to band together when shopping for insurance policies; and substantial medical malpractice reform.
"We have to have more competition among health insurers," he said.
After the results were tallied, McHenry called the day's straw poll win "a nice response."
Gaston County resident Don Peterson also filed for the Republican primary but didn't attend the forum.
Meanwhile, Democrats Timothy Murphy, Patsy Keever and Terry Bellamy will face off in their party's primary, hoping to take McHenry's seat in November.
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.