The Republican candidates for Georgia’s ninth district seat in Congress may have few ideological differences, but they are not subtle.
At an event sponsored by the Hall County Republican Party on Saturday in Gainesville, the six Republican candidates sat down to tell local Republicans what they stand for.
The six participants represented the majority of the eight candidates seeking to fill the vacancy left by former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal.
As they spoke at the Gainesville Elks Lodge, each emphasized his commitment to constitutionalist conservatism, his support of the fair tax and his belief that the recent push to change the country’s health care system was a misguided one.
But there were a few issues that divided the Republican candidates and one in particular that sparked personal attacks.
The first step out of the line came from Steve Tarvin, a Chickamauga businessman, after an audience member asked whether the candidates would vote to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
While he later said he supported the military and its causes, Tarvin separated himself from the other candidates when he said “I don’t believe in occupation.”
Tarvin added that he did not support a “boots on the ground” defense strategy, and said the government should do away with its rules of engagement to allow the Central Intelligence Agency to take care of terroristic threats.
As soon as Tarvin sat down, though, former state Sen. Lee Hawkins said war had first been declared on the United States.
“I think we’re right in going after them,” Hawkins said. “National defense is something that this federal government owes to the people of this nation.”
Chris Cates of Blairsville, former state representative Tom Graves and former state Senate Majority Leader Bill Stephens made similar comments that troops should be given the tools necessary to carry out defense missions and that the administration should take the advice of military leaders.
Graves received applause when he said it was important for the United States to be perceived as the “strongest military force on the planet.”
But Bert Loftman, a Pickens County neurosurgeon, sided with Tarvin.
“I do not believe in being an occupying force ... And going into that country and thinking we’re going to change those people,” said Loftman. “It’s not going to happen.”
Otherwise, the six candidates did not stray too far from the same target. All said they were against a value-added tax and a bill that would tax carbon emissions. Each said he supported term limits and neither said he would support allowing Hall County to be split into two separate congressional districts when boundaries are redrawn.
But inescapable was the tense back-and-forth between Cates, a cardiologist, and Graves, an eight-year state representative.
The tete-a-tete between the two first ignited when Cates commented on the length of Graves’ introductory speech.
The candidates had been given two minutes to introduce themselves to the audience before taking questions from the moderator.
Cates’ speech immediately followed Graves’.
“One thing about following a career politician is that they never stay on time,” Cates said.
And later, the Republican from Ranger retaliated. After answering a question about the labor union issue of “card check,” Graves addressed Cates, calling him “the good doctor from Fulton County.”
Graves said if Cates had a problem with career politicians, then he was insulting Deal, an 18-year congressman running for governor of Georgia, in his home county.
Graves countered that politicians like himself and Deal were “proven and tested.”
But Cates, who had the floor immediately after Graves, called attention to the fact that Graves resigned his position in the state House of Representatives early to seek Deal’s office in the May 11 special election.
“It’s funny to me how people who have taken an oath to serve the people of the ninth district ... when the heat gets hot they cut and run and move towards the next highest office,” Cates said.
Hawkins, who also resigned from the state Senate to seek Deal’s seat in the special election, returned the conversation to its original question about the candidates’ views on “card check.”
Hawkins’ said he was “totally against” it, as did the other candidates.
Tarvin also said he was for secrecy when it came to voting, but immediately returned to the Cates-Graves conversation.
Earlier in the forum, Tarvin had also made comments that the people of the ninth district do not need another career politician in the U.S. House.
Tarvin clarified that he thought there should be more businessmen in government.
“We need somebody that doesn’t think like a politician,” Tarvin said. “... A doctor can think like a politician.”
But Stephens, of Cumming, once again returned the conversation to its original purpose, making the final comment of the candidates in the forum.
“The right to a secret ballot is sacred,” Stephens said. “The right to vote is sacred and so is the right to vote in secret sacred.”
The forum also included speeches from other Republican candidates for office. Those included former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who is running for governor, real estate broker Jimmy Norman, who is seeking Hawkins’ former seat in the state Senate, and Gerry Purcell, a candidate for insurance commissioner.