Three Democrats competing for a chance to flip a Kentucky congressional seat found common ground on policy issues, but their televised debate turned testy when one candidate brought up a rival's status as a newcomer to the district.
The hour-long debate Wednesday night featuring 6th District candidates Jim Gray, Amy McGrath and Reggie Thomas included their plans to expand health care coverage and curb gun violence.
But it turned personal when Thomas brought up that McGrath moved to the district last year.
Thomas told McGrath that he has heard some voters refer to her as a "carpet-bagger."
The exchange came during a segment when the candidates asked each other questions. Thomas mentioned three small communities in the district and asked McGrath in which counties they're located. She replied that she didn't know, then mentioned her military service as a former fighter pilot as the reason she's not a longtime district resident.
"I served my country, OK. I can't do both — I can't live here for 20 years and also be a United States Marine, serving the people of Kentucky," McGrath said. "I chose to do that, and I'm proud of that."
In making their pitches to voters, Gray cited his experience as a businessman and Lexington mayor. McGrath portrayed herself as the type of political newcomer needed to change Washington. And Thomas touted his progressive policy proposals.
When asked to delve into health care policy, Gray and McGrath said they would work to improve the Affordable Care Act if elected to Congress, while Thomas advocated an ambitious plan to expand Medicare coverage to all Americans.
The Democrats are running for the seat held by Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, who has advocated for repealing most of former President Barack Obama's legacy, including the health care law.
"For the last six years, Andy Barr has worked to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act," Gray said. "It is time for us to focus on repealing and replacing Andy Barr."
Gray said the health care law championed by Obama should be improved, and he spoke in favor of giving a tax credit to middle-income Americans to help them afford rising health care premiums.
McGrath touted adding a public health insurance option as a way to improve the health care law.
"Give people a choice," she said. "You want a government plan, you can take it, you can take an Uncle Sam plan."
She also advocated expanding access to Medicare to people 55 and older.
"Everybody deserves coverage and that's how we need to get there," McGrath said.
Thomas, a state senator from Lexington, advocated a more sweeping expansion of Medicare coverage.
"It works here in America now," he said. "And what I want to do, I want to extend that to everyone."
The three were asked how to curb gun violence, wading into a sensitive issue in a state where gun rights are cherished.
McGrath described herself as a strong Second Amendment supporter, noting that "I have shot just about everything you can possibly imagine in terms of weapons." She also expressed deep concerns about gun violence and school shootings.
"There are some things that we should have done yesterday — banning bump stocks, universal background checks," she said.
Gray said he supports expanding background checks for gun buyers as a way to combat gun violence.
"We must deal with what is achievable first, and that is universal background checks," he said.
Thomas called for eliminating bump stocks, universal background checks before firearms purchases and a buyback program for owners of military-style weapons to get those guns "out of the public domain."
Barr's campaign deflected criticism aimed at the incumbent, saying in a statement: "Congressman Barr is not focused on the divisive and increasingly expensive Democrat primary, but rather on representing his constituents in the 6th Congressional District by passing historic tax reform, advocating for the district's equine and bourbon industries and securing vital funding to combat the opioid epidemic."
The district covering a broad swath of central and east central Kentucky is eyed by Democrats as a prime pick-up opportunity in November as they try to win back the U.S. House.
Other Democratic candidates in the 6th District primary include Theodore David Green, Daniel Kemph and Geoff Young. They did not participate in the debate. Republican Chuck Eddy is challenging Barr in the GOP primary.