Gloves come off at second Denham-Harder debate as candidates trade verbal blows

Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, right, and Democratic challenger Josh Harder, left, debate at the Carnegie Center in Turlock, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.
Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, right, and Democratic challenger Josh Harder, left, debate at the Carnegie Center in Turlock, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. aalfaro@modbee.com

After several weeks spent accusing each other of being too afraid to meet head-to-head in public, Republican Rep. Jeff Denham and Democratic challenger Josh Harder debated twice in three days, including Saturday’s lively forum in Turlock, claimed by both as their home base.

Unlike Thursday’s mostly polite discussion before Modesto Bee editors, the candidates came out swinging Saturday and kept landing blows until the event, hosted by the Turlock Journal, ended 90 minutes later.

“We’re throwing barbs back and forth today. I guess it’s kind of fun, kind of entertaining,” Denham reflected toward the end of Saturday’s fray.

Maybe the crowd influenced the candidates’ behavior. Thursday’s event, which can be replayed on The Bee’s Facebook page, had no audience, while the Journal on Saturday held a lottery for limited seating at the Carnegie Arts Center. Those admitted had trouble stifling laughter and applause, prompting Journal Editor Kristina Hacker to issue a warning when things got rowdy: “I’d hate to ask anybody to leave.”

Harder drew first blood, saying Denham hasn’t secured one dollar of federal funding for Valley water projects since his election to Congress eight years ago.

Denham came right back: “We call him ‘Bay Area Harder’ because he aligns himself with Bay Area issues.” The incumbent repeatedly invoked “Bay Area principles” and progressive office holders such as Gov. Jerry Brown, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom as enemies to the Valley.

Harder lost no opportunity to paint Denham as beholden to wealthy corporate political action committees which have contributed a majority of the incumbent’s campaign money, including pharmaceutical companies. Denham reminded the audience that most of Harder’s big contributors are not in the 10th District, covering Stanislaus County and the south part of San Joaquin County.

Physical distance between the candidates may explain some of the difference in debate atmosphere. Thursday, the two men sat next to each other at a Bee conference table, and Denham raised his already-big voice infrequently. On Saturday, they stood at rostrums about 6 feet apart, and Denham repeatedly shouted at his opponent and interrupted him several times, while Harder took to shrugging in disbelief and smirking at the audience when the incumbent spoke.

A couple of times, Denham found it impossible to ignore the audience and addressed people when he saw them shaking heads in disagreement.

Denham skewered Harder’s dismal voting record — he missed 17 of 20 elections, resuming when he decided to run for Congress — saying, “It’s one thing to criticize my position, but at least show up and vote. If you want people to vote for you, at least show up and vote.”

Harder said he was “not always proud” of that, and noted what spurred him into action: “On every issue I care about, we were being misrepresented by someone who voted with his party 98 percent of the time. My complacency is gone, all thanks to you. Thanks to your efforts the last few years, you’re seeing people come out of the woodwork; thank you for that.”

Harder turned to sarcasm time after time, accusing Denham at least twice of relying on “alternative facts.”

Denham mocked Harder’s former job as a venture capitalist and his current position teaching business at Modesto Junior College. Denham called him “Professor” twice and said Denham’s son, an MJC student, might learn from Harder how to outsource jobs to other countries and “how to make money as a venture capitalist. It’s fun to be light-hearted on some of these things,” he added, but the tone was anything but friendly.

Harder said Denham’s attack was “a bucket of lies” and called the assertions “ridiculous. You’re trying to make me seem as scary as possible” to deflect from Denham’s record, Harder said.

Harder put Denham on the spot, demanding that the incumbent declare whether he accepts man-made climate change as reality.

“I don’t believe in liberal policies,” Denham began in response as many audience members groaned.

When Harder pressed him to answer directly, Denham said, “We shouldn’t have to pay for the Bay Area’s dirty air. Yes, I believe in climate change.”

“Man-made?” Harder asked for a third time.

“Bay Area-made, yes,” Denham said.

Denham then attacked Harder’s pro-choice stance, referring to a July 2017 video that captured Harder defending late-term abortion, which Denham called “just disgusting” and noted Harder’s recent position affirming California law preventing abortion in the third trimester.

Harder objected to “being lectured on changing position” by someone — Denham — who told about 1,000 people at a Denair town hall meeting in April 2017 that he would not vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, then did just that a few days later in Washington, D.C. Denham said, “I’ll lecture you all I want,” explaining that the switch came only after the bill was amended to include some money helping people with pre-existing conditions.

“Please calm down,” Hacker, the moderator, said as some in the crowd reacted loudly.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390