US House candidates spar over health care in debate

SEATTLE  — In the only debate for one of the most closely-watched midterm races in the country, the two candidates vying for Washington state's open U.S. House seat sparred Wednesday night over health care, immigration and gun control in the context of GOP control.

At stake is the 8th Congressional District race, where Democrats are trying to flip the open U.S. House seat that's been held by the GOP since it was created nearly three decades ago. It's the only congressional district that substantially blends Washington's wide-ranging political spectrum, from the ultraliberal eastern Seattle suburbs to solidly conservative in the rural Cascade Mountains.

Democrat Dr. Kim Schrier, a first-time candidate and national party favorite, repeatedly tagged Republican Dino Rossi, a longtime state legislator with wide name recognition, as beholden to President Donald Trump and the special interests aligned with their party, calling out the National Rifle Association that had supported Rossi's previous campaign and Rossi's backing of a repeal on the Affordable Care Act. The 50-year-old pediatrician cast herself as an outsider champion of the middle class who wants to expand Medicare and serve as a check-and-balance on the other Washington in the hands of Republicans.

"I will stick up for the middle class every day. I don't trust that he will," Schrier said at the debate at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.

Rossi, a 59-year-old real estate investor, largely focused on what his opponent lacks: His legislative experience, leadership credentials and a familiar political reputation in a state where he has been on the ballot 10 times but hasn't won a general election in 18 years. He deflected at times but sought to distinguish himself as a budget hawk and independent voice with the ability to work along both sides of the aisle. Though he doesn't break publicly from Trump, he mentioned the president's previous reality television show, declaring: "I am not running to be 'The Apprentice.'"

The 8th Congressional District is one of two dozen districts nationwide held by the GOP but whose voters chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. It's a critical potential pickup for Democrats trying to take the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since 2010.

Schrier's candidacy now tests the "Year of the Woman" and "Blue Wave" momentum that's been projected since Trump took office, as Rossi has carried the district in three statewide races. Rossi is perhaps best known for losing the country's closest race for governor in 2004. He also had a leading role in balancing the state's budget 15 years ago.

Rossi painted Schrier as a "protest movement" candidate and eager supporter of more taxes, saying her chief proposal would "destroy Medicare as we know it." Where Schrier pledged to ensure pre-existing conditions would be protected law, Rossi suggested creating a "high-risk pool" for people with a history of illness.

"My opponent has marched in more protests in Seattle than in parades in the district," Rossi said.

Elsewhere on the issues, the candidates largely stuck to their respective, competing national party scripts, including Rossi's support for a southern U.S. border wall and Schrier's support of raising the age for gun purchases.

Both candidates also addressed the millions of dollars of outside money that has already poured into the race. Most recent totals show Schrier's campaign has raised $5.3 million in contributions, which is more than $1 million over what Rossi has.

Both took swipes at the other over outside spending from super PACs tied to Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan. While each candidate bemoaned the parade of negative ads against them, Schrier got the biggest laughs of the night when she responded to Rossi's complaint about an attack ad that highlighted long-ago business transactions between Rossi and a now fugitive developer. Rossi has never been accused of wrong-doing but Schrier deadpanned: "I stand by my ad. I'm Kim Schrier and I approve that message."