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Kuster and Burns go toe to toe in 2nd Congressional District debate at NHPR

U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster and Republican challenger Robert Burns on the NHPR debate stage in Concord on Friday.
Zoey Knox
U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster and Republican challenger Robert Burns on the NHPR debate stage in Concord on Friday.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster and Republican challenger Robert Burns clashed on issues ranging from abortion and immigration to foreign policy and white supremacy in a charged debate Friday hosted by New Hampshire Public Radio, New Hampshire Bulletin and New Hampshire PBS.

Kuster said she’s running to protect freedoms, a reference to abortion rights, and touted her support for federal pandemic aid and the recent Inflation Reduction Act. She told viewers and a studio audience, “We’ll hear in the next hour our views, and they couldn’t be more different on any number of topics.”

It was an accurate prediction.

Burns casts himself as an outsider and said he’s running to solve supply-chain issues and reduce government involvement in issues he believes states should control, such as voting rights. But he said he would support a federal abortion ban.

He said he also supports “Medicare for all” and would end funding for opioid addiction treatment in favor of nutrition and exercise regimes.

“There’s bootcamp-type facilities that people get committed to, and they get their butts kicked,” he said. “And that’s been the most effective way to get people off drugs.”

Here are five takeaways.

Abortion rights

Burns shifted his position on abortion restrictions significantly.

He denied ever advocating for a six-week abortion ban and challenged Kuster when she noted his campaign website says otherwise. As of Friday, Burns’ website stated: “I would support fetal heartbeat legislation in Congress.” A heartbeat can be detected at about six weeks.

Burns said Friday he would support a federal ban at 12 or 15 weeks.

Burns also revised his proposed requirement that women get a second or third opinion from a “life panel” of doctors before having an abortion. Burns has said those panels would be especially necessary for women of color and low economic status.

During the debate, Burns said he would require those panels in limited circumstances: when women seek an abortion for mental health reasons and when they are uninsured. Burns said he believes hospitals pressure uninsured women into abortions when they have a complicated pregnancy that would result in high medical costs.

He cited a friend’s experience as his evidence.

Kuster reiterated her support for codifying the prior federal right to an abortion up to 24 weeks. When asked if she would allow abortion at any point in pregnancy, Kuster was less specific.

“That’s absurd,” she said. “It’s a Fox News talking point and it doesn’t happen.” When pressed, Kuster said she would support allowing an abortion when there are “tragic circumstances” late in pregnancy.

“What I support is physicians to make that decision,” she said. Later, she added: “I think we need less government interference in people’s personal private lives. It’s the Live Free or Die state, and the voters agree with me on this.”

Pandemic aid

Kuster stood by her support for sending billions of dollars in pandemic aid to states to cover medical expenses, support businesses and nonprofits, and invest in infrastructure like broadband. And she touted her vote for the Inflation Reduction Act, which will cap the cost of insulin and out-of-pocket drug costs for some seniors and invest millions in clean energy.

Kuster rejected the argument that those federal expenditures have triggered the highest inflation rates in four decades. She blamed the Trump administration and profiteering by oil companies.

“We were responding to a worldwide global pandemic and the potential economic collapse,” she said of the spending bills.

Burns received at least $87,000 in pandemic aid, according to the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery. But he said Friday that he opposed federal spending following the pandemic.

“There was way too much grift and graft,” he said, offering no evidence. “There was way too much money that was just lost to corporations that never existed.”

Burns went on to say: “My opponent here talks about the need for the federal government to help build businesses. I built my business without the federal government.”

When Kuster raised the federal aid he received, Burns said he had been in business for 10 years before he received it. “I built my business.”

Support for Ukraine

The two were no less divided on the level of support the United States should provide Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion.

Kuster said she favors providing weapons and drones but not military troops. “I believe in democracy,” she said. “I believe in supporting the people of Ukraine who are fighting for democracy.”

While Burns supports sending food and health care, he said he’d require Ukraine to buy weapons from the United States. Otherwise, he said, he’s concerned the weapons would be diverted and sold on the black market.

Voting rights

Burns has not challenged the results of the 2020 election but said Friday he believes there were irregularities. And he’d like to see states, not the federal government, enforce voting rights and laws – though his answer called into question the integrity of federal elections.

“We don’t want one party in power, being able to control voting in another state,” he said. “That’s the scariest thing that we can do. The people of those states can decide how the states vote.”

Kuster said she would like to see access to voting expanded with mail-in ballots and early voting, and is concerned with Republican efforts to eliminate those options.

“People are working, they’re juggling their families, they’re picking up kids at child care, they often don’t have time to make it there on that one particular day,” she said.

White supremacy

The federal Department of Justice has identified white supremacists as the country’s biggest domestic threat. Between 2000 and 2016, white supremacists were responsible for 49 homicides, according to a federal bill, including a 2015 shooting at a predominantly Black church that killed nine people.

Burns disagrees that white supremacy is a major threat, saying he’s never been given evidence otherwise. He said the media and the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that fights antisemitism and bias, have concocted stories of white supremacists killing hundreds of people.

“They claim that we have these white supremacist organizations,” Burns said. “They’re legitimately two guys sitting in their parents’ basements, and they create a lot of content, and they’re crazy. But there isn’t some huge group of white supremacist hanging out in a secret clubhouse somewhere, waiting to overthrow the government.”

Burns said the country’s biggest threats are drug cartels and fentanyl.

This question was a personal one for Kuster who was in the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Among the protesters were those carrying Confederate flags and hurling racial slurs.

“I believe that we need to take it very seriously,” she said, adding, “I think it’s a threat to our democracy.”

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