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In Final 9th Debate, GOP Candidates Face Tough Questions

Steve Harrison/WFAE
Republican candidates debated Tuesday night, a week before the May 14th primary.

Tuesday night's Republican debate was hosted by radio station WBT, home to conservative programming like Rush Limbaugh.

But it was not a friendly venue. 

WBT's Mark Garrison asked Matthew Ridenhour, a former Mecklenburg County commissioner, about losing his seat in November.

"None of the Republicans whom you served with, and who are friends of yours on the county commission are endorsing you," Garrison asked. "In fact, Jim Puckett says you have no business going to Washington. If they don’t support your candidacy, why should any other Republicans?"

Ridenhour seemed taken back.

"Thank you very much, you know, I’ve had a rocky relationship with Jim Puckett over the years, and frankly Jim sees the world with the way he sees it, and if you aren’t 100 percent aligned with him, you are the enemy," Ridenhour said.

Ridenhour was asked about his campaign slogan, It Takes a Marine to Beat a Marine. That's a reference to his military service and Democrat Dan McCready, who has made his time in the Marines central to his campaign.

Ridenhour said it takes McCready's talking point away, and would let him focus on issues in the race.

But Stevie Rivenbark of Fayetteville took a dig at Ridenhour, referring his loss to Democrat Susan Harden in November.

"I absolutely first of all want to thank you for your service, and admire what you have done," she said. "But a female academic did beat you in the county commission, so I’m fearful as a Republican whether we can go toe-to-toe with the Marine conversation."

Ridenhour said he had a tough loss, but that he is still the most electable candidate.

"As far as losing in 2018, I did. And it was tough difficult defeat to take, but I took it and moved on," he said. "As far as my ability to defeat Dan McCready, I will tell you there are 27 precincts that I had in 2018. I earned more votes than Dan Bishop and Mark Harris in 27 out of 27 precincts."

State Senator Dan Bishop was asked about his co-sponsoring of House Bill 2, which nullified parts of Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance for the gay, lesbian and transgender community.

Bishop questions about the law are a "media fascination."

"HB2 was in 2016, and it was resolved in 2017," Bishop said. "Everybody knows where I stood. I’ve taken scrutiny on that nationally, and in fact internationally, I think people are ready to move on. There are new issues."

A poll by the National Journal last week put Bishop in the first place in the race, with 31 percent of the vote

Union County Commissioner Stony Rushing had 17 percent in the poll, and Ridenhour was third with 9 percent.

Bishop’s front-runner status was perhaps why Cabarrus County realtor Leigh Brown was willing to criticize him over HB2 – something the other candidates have not done. Brown had 5 percent in the poll.

"I do believe Dan Bishop is going to have a challenge in the general election because of HB2, and frankly it’s because our economy suffered, when that circus was going on in the meda, right or wrong," she said.

Brown’s campaign is almost entirely funded by realtors, including $1.3 million in spending on her behalf by the National Realtors Association political action committee. She had been a fundraising chair for the PAC before announcing her candidacy.

Garrison asked her whether she had a deal with the realtor’s group that "I’ll raise the money, then I’ll run and you’ll run campaign ads for me?"

Brown said that did not happen.

"Absolutely not. I am a woman of honor and integrity. Every word, every action, every text is open for scrutiny," she said.

Brown added that, "I am damn proud to be a member of an association I have been with for 19 years. What I would ask is why other special interest groups are not being called into action for the backing they have done of other candidates?"

One of those special interest groups is the Washington D.C. based Club for Growth, which has attacked Rushing’s record in Union County. That group is supporting Bishop.

Rushing spent some of his time attacking Bishop. And Rushing said he could better appeal to independents and Democrats better than Bishop, an attorney.

"I’m not going to have any trouble bringing Democrats over, not like a Charlotte attorney is going to have," Rushing said. "I am going to have an easy time bringing conservative Democrats. They want to come to us. They can’t stomach the babies on the table dying. They can’t stomach the taxes, they can’t stomach the green new deal."

The candidates agreed on things like protecting the Second Amendment, opposing abortion, praising President Trump and saying they are opposed to deficit spending.

The 10-candidate primary will make it challenging to avoid a run-off election. If no candidate receives 30 percent of the vote, there would be a run-off in September, if the second-place finisher asks for one.