The Republican Party looks to North Carolina’s 8th Congressional district as an opportunity to grow its 50-seat advantage in the U.S. House. The race between Democratic incumbent Larry Kissell and Republican challenger Richard Hudson is considered one of the closest in the country.
Yesterday the two candidates met at Wingate University for their first debate of the 2012 election.
The Republican campaign rhetoric paints incumbent Kissell as a yes-man to President Obama and his party. Democrats decry Hudson as an opportunistic Washington insider whose credentials consist mainly of working as an aide to conservative congressmen.
So you'd expect Kissell and Hudson to clash in a debate. And yet yesterday we heard a lot of these words: "I agree."
At least half a dozen times, the Republican - Richard Hudson - started his response by agreeing with Kissell - the Democrat. Part of that had to do with the topics: The debate was sponsored by the AARP and centered on Social Security and Medicare. Kissell and Hudson have very similar positions on those two topics, which we'll get to in a minute.
But here's another reason for all the agreement: "I am a moderate," said Kissell to the crowd. "I believe that's where the answers are. I believe that's where the majority of the people in our district are."
That last part may be less true than it was when Kissell first got elected in 2008 by defeating Republican Congressman Robin Hayes.
The 8th district has traditionally been moderate, though newly-redrawn boundaries have boosted the number of Republican voters.
Kissell plays up his independent streak. Yesterday that meant pointing out to an auditorium full of senior citizens that he dared buck his party on President Obama’s health care act because it cut funding for Medicare.
"I voted 'No' every time that bill came up," said Kissell. "It was eventually passed, but not because I voted for it."
And he - like his opponent Richard Hudson - supports repealing the Affordable Care Act. Kissell would like to replace it with individual bills that address gaps in health coverage - for example, making sure insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions. Hudson favors "market-based" reforms that would make insurance companies compete across state boundaries and allow individuals to band together and purchase coverage with pre-tax earnings.
But where senior citizens and health care are concerned, the candidates agree completely.
"I will never support any plan that makes any change to Medicare for anyone at or near retirement," vowed Hudson.
Hudson says the cost of providing health care to seniors is a growing burden for the federal government, so he is open to changing the plan for people who are currently his age - 40 - or younger. But Larry Kissell says "No way," to even that.
"How do you tell somebody who might have worked 20 or 30 or 40 years, 'I'm sorry, we've changed the rules on you.'" asked Kissell. "Keep the promises (to) the person as they entered the work force - it's simple."
Kissell gave a version of that response over and over during the debate - never taking his full allotted time and a couple of times just answering "No" when asked about proposals that would reform Medicare or Social Security - which he says can be made solvent in the short term if congress will just stop raiding the Social Security Trust Fund to pay for other programs.
Hudson criticized Kissell for not offering alternatives: "That is one of the biggest problems, is that politicians continue to kick the can down the road - they say things like 'Don't raid the trust fund' but where's the fix?"
Hudson didn't offer specific solutions to looming insolvency of Social Security, but said he's open to changes that would affect younger workers - again those under 40.
It was enough detail to impress Monroe Democrat Bonnie Rushing.
"This younger man, Hudson - I loved the way he enunciated and elaborated and had collected all the data," said Rushing after the debate. "I liked that approach rather than the general response."
Rushing's still deciding which way she'll vote.
Reece Deese of Albemarle says he was a little surprised at all the agreement between Kissell and Hudson during the debate, but he's leaning toward the known quantity.
Kissell is "for the people - he's for the seniors," said Deese. "Always he promises that he's gonna take care of the seniors and I think that's great."
It matters what seniors think. Not only do people over 66 tend to be reliable voters, they also make up 18 percent of the 8th district.
Add in all the other voters over 40 - whom both Hudson and Kissell vow to protect from any changes to Social Security or Medicare - and you've got 64 percent. Enough to win an election.