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Lansing — Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop and Democratic challenger Elissa Slotkin feuded over health care, the economy and other issues Tuesday morning in a fast-paced radio debate summed up by the moderator as a “whirlwind.”

Bishop, the two-term lawmaker from Rochester, was on the attack from the onset at WILS-AM 1320 in Lansing, accusing Slotkin of working to “suck up and vacuum up the elitist money” from California and New York while she publicly touts a push for campaign finance reform.

“For her to preach about not taking corporate PAC money, it’s insulting,” said Bishop, whom Slotkin has criticized for accepting campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies that have been sued over the opioid crisis.

"To be honest with you, money in politics almost kept me out of this race," Slotkin said, suggesting it has a "toxic" influence on the system.

Slotkin, a former defense official who lives on a family farm in Holly, has outraised Bishop in the 8th Congressional District race, one of the most closely watched in Michigan and the country as Democrats seek to flip control of the U.S. House.

The Republican-leaning district includes Livingston County and parts of Oakland and Ingham counties. 

Moderator Dave Akerly began the debate by asking candidates about campaign financing before turning to health care, which has emerged as a flash point in races across the country a year after congressional Republicans tried but failed to repeal the federal Affordable Care Act, which prohibits insurers from denying coverage to patients with pre-existing conditions. 

“Health care is the reason I got into this race,” Slotkin said, noting she “lived the issue” when her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer and did not have insurance.

“There are ways to bring down the costs of health care if people with intent get in a room and solve it,” she said. But the federal government must “protect people with pre-existing conditions from price gouging, something that Mr. Bishop exclusively and particularly did not do.”

LISTEN: Bishop, Slotkin debate on WILS-AM 1320 in Lansing (full audio)

Slotkin proposed creating a program that allows younger people to buy into Medicare, said Medicare should have authority to negotiate prescription drug prices and said she wants to hold health insurance and drug companies accountable for rising prices.

Bishop called Slotkin’s pre-existing conditions claims a “lie,” telling reporters after the debate that he has voted for such protections five different times in the state Legislature and Congress, including the repeal-and-replace proposal he voted for in 2017.

“My opponent and her party and Nancy Pelosi have been doing this around the country,” said Bishop, noting “it’s in the bill itself, protections for people with pre-existing conditions.”

“My wife was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis,” he said, noting a personal connection to pre-existing conditions. “This is high on my mind. It’s high on everybody’s mind.”

Slotkin stood her ground in the second of three debates and forums planned between the candidates.

“What he voted to do was allow people with pre-existing conditions to get insurance,” she said of Bishop. “He did not protect them from the kind of price gouging that is exactly the reason my mother didn’t have health insurance.”

Bishop remains a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act, suggesting continued price and premium increases have forced families into bankruptcy and put companies out of business.

“It’s a terrible situation, and now Ms. Slotkin wants to double down on this,” he said. “She wants to double down on government health care.”

Bishop and Slotkin found a rare patch of common ground when discussing President Donald Trump’s trade policy and the looming threat of tariffs that could have a major impact on Michigan’s automotive and agricultural industries.

The Trump administration was right to target China in an attempt to curb intellectual theft, Bishop said. But Michigan is a unique state and unique economy, and “I’ve been working with the administration to address exclusions and specific areas of the economy to make sure we do take the edge off,” he said.

Slotkin said the need to push back on China is “pure, it is real, and it is warranted.”

“But you can’t take the cure for the disease and make it more painful than the disease itself,” she said. “And these tariffs, particularly the way they’re designed, hurt us in particular here in Michigan, and that’s just not something we can support.”

Bishop touted the federal tax cut bill Trump signed in late 2017, calling it “rocket fuel” for the economy that has provided savings for families and businesses. He accused Slotkin of wanting to roll back the tax cuts.

“I’m a big believer in tax reform,” Slotkin responded. “We needed tax reform. I just can’t accept $2 trillion of debt over the next two years.”

Bishop stressed the need for federal immigration reform, calling the system “broken.” The Obama administration “completely ignored immigration” and Democrats have opposed bills that would have secured borders, reformed the visa program and made other changes, he said.

“This is more of a partisan issue than an immigration issue,” Bishop said, suggesting Democrats have obstructed reform efforts to deny the GOP a policy win.

Slotkin noted Republicans have “complete control” of the House, Senate and White House and “own everything” in Washington, D.C.

“If they want to pass something, pass it,” she said. “Where is it? I don’t understand. We can talk about talking about solutions forever, but where’s the beef?”

Asked about student loan debt, Slotkin called it a “crisis,” proposing to cap government interest rates at 2.5 percent “so that young people have a chance to invest in their future and not be saddled with the debt.”

"Getting a loan for any type of higher education is fundamentally different than, like, getting a loan to build a deck on your house,” she said.

Bishop said he’d like to let people with student loans refinance their debt in any way they want, such as rolling it into a mortgage.

“I don’t believe the government should be allowed to be the sole answer to all problems,” he said.

Bishop and Slotkin are poised to compete in person for the final time on Thursday, when they’ll both participate in a Livingston County forum. The election is Nov. 6.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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