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Failed health plan shadows GOP Georgia special election debate

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

The blast radius of the failed healthcare measure shook up a Republican debate over who should succeed Tom Price in the special election to represent his suburban Atlanta district, as several top GOP contenders sparred over what Congress should have done.

The four candidates running to represent the suburban Atlanta district at the Sunday debate split on the next steps, with some blaming the GOP establishment for the failure of the measure and others praising the coalition of moderates and conservatives who ultimately scuttled the proposal.

On one side of the debate was Bob Gray, a former Johns Creek councilman who cast blame on House Speaker Paul Ryan for squandering a “perfect opportunity” to repeal the Affordable Care Act. His campaign said on Friday he would have voted for the measure.

“Eighty percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing,” said Gray, paraphrasing Ronald Reagan. “We need to operate with that principle.”

Former state Sen. Judson Hill took up the other side of the issue, saying he would not have voted for the measure because “we deserve to have expanded choice in healthcare.”

Two other candidates, businessmen Kurt Wilson and David Abroms, both would have opposed the measure for vastly different reasons.

Abroms, running as a moderate Republican, said he would work with Democrats on a bipartisan approach. Wilson said the proposal didn’t go far enough in cutting costs, saying he would have supported more sweeping plans to “attack Medicare and Medicaid in total.”

Healthcare dominated much of the first in a series of three debates sponsored by the 6th District GOP ahead of the April 18 election. There are 18 candidates in the race, including 11 Republicans, and all will be on the same ballot. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will square off in a June 20 runoff.

The district, which stretches from east Cobb to north DeKalb, has long been a Republican stronghold. But Donald Trump's struggles in the area, along with Democrat Jon Ossoff's surprising rise, have given Democrats hope they can flip the seat.

Only a handful of Republican candidates were invited to the debate and two of them – Karen Handel and Dan Moody – had scheduling conflicts and didn't attend. (The other candidates who were not invited loudly complained about being left out.)

That left Gray and Hill as the highest-profile Republicans on the stage – and, seemingly, a chance for Hill to echo his press releases that cast Gray as a “hypocritical politician” and questioned his pro-Trump credentials.

But instead, Gray and Hill largely circled each other throughout the two-hour event, never criticizing each other directly. Hill said organizers asked him and the others not to attack each other head-on.

Abroms, a political newcomer who has pumped $250,000 of his own money into the race, faced some of the toughest jabs. But they came not from the rivals on stage but from the crowd of more than 100 people.

There was scoffing laughter at his promise to hold weekly town hall meetings. And he was booed when he was the only candidate on stage who didn’t raise his hand when asked whether he’d support whichever Republican made it to the runoff. (He said he worried about sticking to that pledge if a candidate’s dark secret was exposed after the vote.)

The debate turned to other familiar themes, including tax plans, immigration and a divide over Washington gridlock.

Wilson, a restaurateur, has focused his campaign on a pledge for term limits and repeatedly made the case for fresh ideas in Congress. Gray said he also would only serve eight years in office - and that he would sleep in a cot in his office so he never gets too cozy on Capitol Hill.

“Once you stay there, you lose touch,” said Gray. “I’m going to spend as much time home and as little time in D.C.”

Abroms worried that term limits would empower un-elected “bureaucrats, lobbyists and staffers.” And Hill said he broadly supports the idea for term limits not only for elected officials but civil service workers.

“We need to put an end to the long-term service of the bureaucracy and put the power back to the people,” he said.

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