CLAREMORE — The top two candidates vying to become Oklahoma’s next congressman from eastern Oklahoma sounded more alike than different during a debate Monday night, agreeing on a range of issues such as preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon to protecting Social Security and Medicare.
Democrat Rob Wallace of Fort Gibson and Republican Markwayne Mullin of Westville met in their only formal debate of the campaign before about 300 people at Rogers State University in Claremore. The two nominees are running to replace current U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, the only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, who announced last year he wouldn’t seek a fifth term in office.
Independent Michael Fulks of Heavener was not invited to participate in the 2nd Congressional District debate, but will be on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
Mullin, who owns a plumbing company, emphasized his campaign theme of cutting bureaucratic red tape as a way to give the economy a boost.
“The only thing they (government) need to do is get out of our way,” Mullin said. “It seems every time they get involved, what they want to do is regulate us more.”
Wallace, a longtime state and federal prosecutor, painted himself as a conservative Democrat who fits the sprawling, 26-county district well and is willing to take on special interests and even members of his own party in Washington.
“It’s about making sure that someone is prepared to go to the U.S. Congress and stand up for folks all over this district and all over the state of Oklahoma,” Wallace said.
The two candidates differed when it came to President Barack Obama’s sweeping new health care law — the Affordable Care Act. Mullin has consistently said the new law places harsh burdens on small business owners and should be repealed.
“We must repeal Obamacare,” Mullin said. “It’s the biggest threat to our economy.”
While Wallace said he took exception to how much influence insurance companies had in the drafting of the legislation, he said repealing the measure is not politically feasible as long as Democrats maintain control of the Senate and that more emphasis should be placed on improving the measure.
“The repeal of Obamacare is a great thing to talk about from a political standpoint,” Wallace said. “We’ve got to fix it, because repeal at this point is politically impossible.”
Both Wallace and Mullin agreed that Social Security and Medicare are a promise to recipients that must be kept, but neither discussed how they would work to make the two systems more solvent. And both distanced themselves from party affiliation and stressed the importance of working together to solve the nation’s problems.
“People are sick to death of labels of Republican or Democrat, sick to death of red and blue,” Wallace said. “What people want are solutions. They don’t care whether they’re Republican solutions or Democratic solutions.”
Although registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district by a more than 2-to-1 margin, the district has grown increasingly conservative. Obama failed to win a single county in the district — or the state — in 2008, and he barely topped 42 percent among registered Democrats in the presidential primary in March over little-known candidates.
Celest Tillery, 62, a retired school teacher and registered Democrat from Claremore, said she’s wary of Mullin’s talk about cutting taxes and reducing government spending in a district that relies heavily on public funding.
“We have a lot of needy people in Oklahoma who don’t seem to realize they’re needy,” Tillery said. “They are taking government money with one hand and flipping off the government with the other.”
David Hamilton, a 70-year-old insurance agent and Republican from nearby Inola, said he supports Mullin because of his pledge to serve no more than three terms in Congress if elected.
“He captured my attention when he said he wanted to be a citizen legislator,” Hamilton said. “He’s going to be in and out in six years. He’s not going to feed at the public trough.”