US House candidates say storm will dominate election thoughts

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. -- Hurricane Florence, its effects and aftermath will almost certainly be top of mind for voters as they decide whether to give U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., a third term or replace him with one of two challengers, the candidates said.

Rouzer, elected by wide margins in 2014 and 2016, has been challenged by Democrat Dr. Kyle Horton, a Kure Beach physician who has run an aggressive campaign since announcing her candidacy in May 2017. They were joined by Constitutional Party candidate David Fallin of Pender County, who entered the race in July after narrowly losing a Republican Party primary for a Pender County commissioner seat.

"This is a major storm that has affected a large portion of the constituency all throughout," said Rouzer, a Wilmington Republican. "I don't think you ever get away from the hurricane between now and Election Day."

"I think that, for a lot of people, the hurricane is very much on their minds because people are suffering and struggling throughout the district, unfortunately," Horton said.

Fallin said he believed most government and private agencies, including power companies and the N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT), responded well to the storm, but that bureaucracy and confusion in getting aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should prompt a review of the agency's guidelines.

"I don't know you'd be able to get things up and running again any faster," he said. "It would be nice to be able to do something to somehow make (FEMA) better."

But the election is still going to happen, with early voting starting Oct. 17 and Election Day Nov. 6.

"I'm obviously aware that an election is about a month away and we will be ... executing our campaign strategy," Rouzer said. "But obviously in the wake of a hurricane all of that changes. I'm certainly not ignoring Election Day, but it's not my highest priority at the moment."

Other issues

Outside of Florence's impact, Horton said she believed voters are concerned about health care and are worried that Congress may act to decrease benefits under Medicare and Medicaid in order to bring down federal deficits. Congress recently enacted tax reform that independent analysts said would lead to further deficits and debt.

Horton supports lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50 and creating a public option for health care coverage.

"People are deeply concerned that if they have a pre-existing condition or a history of substance abuse that they won't be able to get coverage," she said. "I think we should be working toward creating a safety net where every American has access to health care."

Rouzer said he believes issues outside his control -- including President Donald Trump and the controversial confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh by the U.S. Senate -- could factor in his re-election bid.

"There are a lot of things that shape the environment," he said. "But our focus on the campaign is going to be on talking about the things we've worked really hard on in the district."

Fallin, the Constitutional Party candidate, said he would attempt to regulate the media -- an entity protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution. He said he would propose bills to "be able to manage the media better than what they are."

"We've got to keep people more responsible for what they're doing and held more accountable," he said. "Freedom of speech doesn't necessarily mean you can say things that aren't true and make someone look bad."

Beach nourishment

Rouzer said the hurricane highlighted the need for continued federal funding of beach nourishment projects. Officials from several beach communities said they weathered the storm well thanks to sand absorbing some of the storm's initial impacts of wind and storm surge. He said the initial investment in the projects likely saved the federal government untold costs in covering National Flood Insurance Program claims.

"If you look at the damage inflicted by the hurricane, those beaches that have had a good, strong, robust nourishment program fared a lot better that those beaches that didn't," Rouzer said.

It's a topic of agreement between Rouzer and Horton.

"I think the federal government should continue to play a role in beach nourishment projects," Horton said.

Play nice

Rouzer, Horton and Fallin were each asked to say something they liked or admired about one of the other candidates.

Rouzer called his Democratic challenger an honest campaigner, saying he appreciated that her campaign platforms accurately portray her positions. He said he has seen candidates campaign as moderates in the past, only to take more extreme positions after being elected.

"She strikes me as being very honest and straightforward in her liberal positions," he said. "From what I can tell, she's campaigning as a liberal."

Horton gave Rouzer credit for working to keep federal funding flowing to the region's beaches and for his work to secure $6.7 million to repair Wilmington's bulkhead, which was damaged by Tropical Storm Hermine in 2016.

"I think he has tried genuinely on beach nourishment and on the bulkhead downtown to ensure he's doing the right thing for his community on those issues," she said.

Fallin said he doesn't know Horton well enough to judge her, but said "Rouzer has a lot of good qualities that I've seen. I don't think he's done a bad job overall."

The 7th Congressional District takes up most of Southeastern North Carolina, stretching from Brunswick County in the south to the suburbs of Raleigh. The position comes with a salary of $174,000.

Reporter Tim Buckland can be reached at Tim.Buckland@StarNewsOnline.com.