In a sparring match, with a Green Party candidate standing in the middle, U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Muphysboro, and Democratic nominee Brendan Kelly on Tuesday sought to show how they are different from one another.
While Bost mentioned other politicians, Kelly repeatedly brought up stories of regular people in the 12th District and often mentioned them by their first name.
Bost, Kelly and Green Party candidate Randy Auxier participated in the only televised debate of the race.
During a media availability after the debate, Kelly discussed his strategy going into the debate.
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“I think it was just be honest with people, share your heart with people, have a sincere conversation about the future of Southern Illinois and about the ugly things that are dividing this country and how it’s hurting people in Southern Illinois,” Kelly said.
Bost, who held a fundraiser with U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in O’Fallon on Tuesday, did not participate in the media availability. He left to have dinner with his daughter to celebrate her birthday.
George O’Connor, Bost’s spokesman, said the Republican incumbent strongly defended his record.
“What I think what we saw tonight was Mike Bost make a pretty compelling case that he’s got a record to stand on, not empty promises from Brendan Kelly,” O’Connor said. “What I also saw was Randy Auxier with ideas of substance that a lot of folks in Brendan Kelly’s party really like.”
The candidates were allowed to have notes on their lecterns during the debate. However, Bost was the only one to appear to read from them while speaking. O’Connor said Bost did not refer to them that much.
“I don’t think that’s the case at all,” O’Connor said. “He looked down a couple times, (and) notes were allowed.”
This was the only meeting where all three of the candidates participated. A debate last week at Lindenwood University-Belleville did not include Bost, who opted out.
Bost has had a slight lead in several polls but the latest poll from The New York Times has him leading Kelly by 9 percentage points.
Kelly said his campaign’s internals show a tighter race and that the St. Clair County numbers in the poll appear to be off.
“We feel good about where it’s going,” Kelly said. “I think we’ve taken some hits because of some of these ugly ads, in some cases are outright lies, but what you see is we’re rebounding and headed in the right direction in the last two weeks.”
Early in the debate, Kelly criticized Bost regarding unions.
“The reason we’re not seeing an increase in wages is because we have people in power now, including Mr. Bost, that have done everything they can to undermine organized labor,” Kelly said.
In commenting on the economy, Bost said, “What we did with the tax cuts and what we did to expand business growth is (happening) nationwide.” He said slow growth in the region is due to the state of Illinois.
While Bost and Kelly criticized each other, they did not attack Auxier.
“I think that’s just fine,” Auxier said. “I think things were genuinely civil and possibly more so, since I was here.”
Auxier said it was a mistake that The New York Times poll did not have him in the model.
“I’m quite sure a lot of people are going to vote for me,” Auxier said. “I don’t think their numbers are worth the paper they’re printed on.”
Auxier, who is a professor at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said the economy needs infrastructure investments such as high-speed rail.
In a response to a question about college student debt, Bost said there needs to be more vocational training and that the money people are saving because of tax reform ($2,200 for a family of four in Southern Illinois) allows families to save for college.
Kelly, who is the St. Clair County state’s attorney, said a national service program, as Auxier recommended, makes sense as a way to help students pay for college, but it’s not for everyone. He also said there needs to be a change in the “amoral policy” that the federal government “makes a profit off of student loans.”
On who they would vote for speaker of the House of Representatives, Bost said he would support Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., while Kelly said he would be under pressure to vote for U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., like legislators in the state are pressured to vote for longtime state House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago.
“I will vote for speaker for whoever will put Southern Illinois first,” Kelly said. He added that Bost is pressured by the GOP to say Pelosi would be speaker again if Democrats regain power in the House of Representatives. Kelly previously has said he won’t vote for Pelosi.
On the issue of immigration, Bost said he voted to correct problem of separation of children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Kelly, 42, said the immigration system is broken and he noted the GOP controls the White House, House and Senate. “(They) have no excuse for not getting it done,” he said of reforming the immigration system.
Bost, 57, said he worked with both Republicans and Democrats, including Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to get the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to move its western headquarters from St. Louis to a site next to Scott Air Force Base. “If I failed, he failed,” Bost said, adding that President Barack Obama decided to build the new NGA headquarters in north St. Louis. Kelly has criticized Bost for not doing enough to bring the NGA to St. Clair County.
On health care, Bost said he supports plans that are “affordable and portable,” and doesn’t want to see coverage for pre-existing conditions go away. He also said three counties in the 12th Congressional District only have one insurance provider in the marketplace system.
In a response to a question about the opioid epidemic, Bost said he created a task force to deal with the opioid epidemic and invited the U.S. surgeon general to Southern Illinois. He said there needs to be more legislation on this issue. “We’ve got to deal with this crisis,” he said.
Kelly said: “We have to stop (the) flow of fentanyl and heroin (which) requires border security. We also have make sure our health care has treatment for mental health and addiction.”
Auxier, 57, said a single-payer health care system is needed to deal with the opioid epidemic.
Auxier said he favors the legalization of marijuana and the sales should be taxed while Bost said he is against legalization for recreational use and said cannabis should be removed from schedule 1 enforcement.
Bost said a growing economy could help balance the federal budget. “We’re in position now we have to make sure the economy grows,” he said. Kelly said rich people should pay more in taxes so the federal government can avoid cuts in Social Security and Medicare.
In his closing statement, Bost said 11 unions have supported him and every farm bureau in the district backs him.
“Why is that? Well here’s why: Because I know and listen and understand my district. I know the people. I’ve worked hard for them.
“My opponent runs an ad and tells them I’ve been in office since he was 8 years old,” Bost said. “Well actually I was in office when he was 8 years old. I was 23 and a county board member because I was concerned about serving my community. I served it as a firefighter. I have served it in civic organizations. Yes, I served it in local government, state government and now the federal government.”
In his closing statement, Kelly said he met with Bost after Bost was first elected to Congress and he asked Bost for his help to assist with neighborhoods dealing with high crime rates and poverty. But Kelly said Bost did “nothing for those people.”
Kelly noted that Bost mentioned the names of several politicians during the debate but “one thing you didn’t mention was the single the name of any person here in Southern Illinois, any actual person from Southern Illinois.
“So I know you don’t listen to those types of folks because you don’t mention them. You don’t ever talk about them. So I know that because I asked for your help and you didn’t listen to me.”
The race has attracted high profile figures to the district. Democratic Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon, has campaigned with Kelly. Vice President Mike Pence headlined a fundraiser for Bost in July.
President Donald Trump came to Granite City in July to tout the steel mill reopening after steel tariffs went into place. Trump is scheduled to hold a rally with Bost in Murphysboro on Saturday.
The 90-minute debate was televised live from the studios of WSIU in Carbondale. It was sponsored by WSIU, the Belleville News-Democrat and the Southern Illinoisian.