TAMPA — More than one quarter of voters in Florida’s 16th Congressional District — roughly 165,000 citizens — live in Hillsborough County.
Yet the only face-to-face debate between Republican incumbent Vern Buchanan and Democratic challenger Margaret Good took place Friday on a community TV station that doesn’t air in Hillsborough County.
Buchanan and Good took shots at each other for about an hour Friday afternoon, clashing over the nation’s response to the coronavirus, the economy and the future of healthcare and Social Security. The noon debate aired on Manatee Educational Television, which airs only in Manatee and Sarasota, the two other counties that make up the district.
That had Good repeating claims that her opponent has dodged debates. Buchanan wanted to avoid facing tough questions in front of voters about his record, she said.
“He is not comfortable talking about his record of cutting to the front of the line to take $7 million in (federal bailout) money while skipping the vote on transparency, being named the most corrupt member of Congress five times, and voting to gut Medicare and protections for people with pre-existing conditions,” she said in an email.
The Buchanan campaign did not respond to requests for debates from Tampa television station WFLA-Ch. 8 and for a video forum that the League of Woman Voters of Manatee County hoped to organize.
It also told the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club that Buchanan would be in Washington, D.C., when it planned to hold an online forum, said club President Kim Noyes. The group then scheduled a debate for this week, but did not hear back from Buchanan’s campaign.
Max Goodman, Buchanan’s campaign manager said that Friday’s debate was streamed by WFLA on its Facebook page and will air on SNN, a Sarasota TV news station. Its typical for a congressional race to feature just one televised debate, he said.
“Every voter in FL-16 will be able to watch firsthand the difference between a bipartisan congressman who has passed 22 bills into law and a partisan gadfly with zero accomplishments,” Goodman said.
The tactic of candidates ducking debates is becoming more common, said Alice Newlon, president of the Manatee League.
“I think what they’re doing is starting to rely on paid political advertisements,” she said. “They don’t want to take a chance on revealing themselves in a debate.”
The one on-air clash between the candidates was feisty.
Good attacked her opponent’s voting record, citing his support for repealing the Affordable Health Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, and his support of cuts to Medicare and Social Security. She made repeated references to firms owned by Buchanan receiving as much as $7 million in federal bailout money, while he voted to deny increased benefits for people who lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
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“There are still a million people in Florida that are unemployed through no fault of their own,” Good said. “And unfortunately, our current representative has turned his back.”
Good said the government failed to provide robust coronavirus testing and contract tracing when the virus first emerged in the United States.
“I will make sure that we treat the public health crisis like what it is: a crisis,” she said. “I will follow science, and I will follow the experts.”
Buchanan’s response highlighted the federal government’s ban on visitors from China early in the pandemic. He said he is working to make vulnerable seniors in his district safer through telehealth and free vaccines once they are available.
He touted his 13-year record as a congressman and ability to obtain funding for projects in his district, including $27 million for a national cemetery for veterans and $8 million to tackle a red-tide outbreak. He serves on the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee.
Buchanan blamed state government for botching Florida’s response to the economic downturn, a reference to the state’s online unemployment claims system that repeatedly failed during the early months of the pandemic.
“We have one of the worst systems in terms of Florida, in the country, and that’s your job, not my job to fix that,” Buchanan said to Good. “You had three years; you did nothing.”
He repeatedly said that Good failed to accomplish anything during her time as a state representative.
“She talks, I deliver,” he said.