The two faced off at the University of Mississippi Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics where nearly 200 people packed the darkened auditorium for the one-hour session.
Nunnelee, the Republican incumbent, reiterated in general terms the national GOP agenda of prosperity through spending cuts, easing regulations and repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. With the exception of an initial greeting, he never mentioned his Democratic challenger.
“Can we continue in the direction we’re going?” Nunnelee said. “It’s not working. Our country must make changes.”
Morris, however, criticized Nunnelee several times for his voting record – against education, he said, for redefining rape and for supporting the controversial Paul Ryan budget. He blamed the incumbent for being part of what he called the most paralyzed Congress in decades.
“Mr. Nunnelee and his colleagues in Congress believe the third most important issue to be addressed in Congress – before jobs, before the war in Afghanistan and Iraq – is a bill that did define rape and make a distinction between forcible and unforcible rape.”
Each candidate had 90 seconds to make opening statements before responding to a series of questions posed by four journalists selected by Ole Miss, including the writer of this story. Topics included job creation, taxes, women’s health, welfare reform, Obamacare, illegal immigration and the current congressional gridlock.
Morris and Nunnelee agreed the country must enforce existing laws that hold employers accountable for their role in illegal immigration but otherwise disagreed on other issues.
“Over the last 20 months I voted for legislation that would repeal Obmacare; I think that’s progress,” Nunnelee said. “I voted for legislation that would rein in excessive government regulations; I think that’s progress.”
Nunnelee, a 54-year-old former state senator, joined Congress in January 2011 and has spent the nearly two years since supporting key Republican policies.
This is Morris’ first run for Congress. The 37-year-old attorney and longtime political insider previously served as chief of staff for Nunnelee’s predecessor, then-U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, D-Miss.
Morris supports the health care act, admitting its flaws but defending it as the first real attempt to reform health care in his lifetime. It would be a mistake, he said, to repeal it and go back to charging families for pre-existing conditions, charging women more just because of their gender and reimposing lifetime payment caps.
“The easy political thing for me to do would be to just come out against it … because that seems to be popular sentiment,” Morris said. “I can’t do that in good conscience.”
Morris said his primary concern is the welfare of working-class and middle-class families in north Mississippi. He wants to strengthen education, create stable jobs, and preserve social safety nets like Social Security and Medicare.
Top on Nunnelee’s agenda is reducing the federal deficit to eliminate the financial burden on future generations. Only then, he said, will the nation prosper.
Nunnelee and Morris face off in the Nov. 6 general election. Also on the ballot are Constitution Party candidate Jim R. Bourland, Libertarian Danny Bedwell and Reform Party candidate Chris Potts.
Both men shook hands after the debate and joined their wives and supporters before mingling in the lobby for refreshments with audience members.