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3rd Congressional GOP candidates talk masks, pandemic relief in first debate

Republican candidates in WI-03 primary race, Jessi Ebben (Left) and Derrick Van Orden (Right)
Republican candidates in WI-03 primary race, Jessi Ebben (Left) and Derrick Van Orden (Right)(Campaign photos)
Published: Jul. 31, 2020 at 11:00 AM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Two Republican candidates looking to unseat longtime Democrat representative Ron Kind in Wisconsin’s third Congressional district went head to head in their first debate on Friday, hosted virtually by Wisconsin Public Radio.* Candidates Derrick Van Orden and Jessi Ebben hit similar notes on opposition to Governor Tony Ever’s recent mask mandate, proposed Congressional pandemic relief, and a safe plan for school reopenings while covering a range of issues that included agriculture, farming, tourism and climate change.

Retired Navy SEAL Derrick Van Orden from Hager City is competing for the seat against Jessi Ebben, a public relations professional based in Eau Claire. Formally endorsed by Vice President Mike Pence, former governor Scott Walker and others, Van Orden has outraised his primary opponent, who has garnered endorsements from the House Freedom PAC, Wisconsin Right to Life, and locally elected officials. Both face an uphill battle in the district where Rep. Kind has garnered broad support in his 20+ year tenure, most recently winning the district by almost 20 points. President Trump, however, won the district in 2016 when Kind was reelected unchallenged. The district spans most of southwestern Wisconsin and parts of Central Wisconsin, including La Crosse, Eau Claire, Stevens Point, Wisconsin Rapids, Chippewa Falls and Tomah.

Congressional pandemic relief

While Ebben cited priorities for additional protection for schools against COVID-19-related lawsuits, Van Orden focused on an economic return as well as concern over a “quadrupled budget” in the previous relief bill.

“If there is an additional spending bill, it is that we focus on getting back to normal, and one of the biggest steps we can take as a society in getting back to normal is getting back to school,” Ebben said, adding that providing the needed equipment and resources for a safe return should be a priority. Additionally, Ebben cited $100 million still unspent in the original CARES act, saying more accountability over the money assigned in future bills was needed.

“Congress absolutely has to prioritize getting America back to work safely,” Van Orden said. “We cannot continue to spend trillions and trillions of dollars that we simply do not have.” Van Orden said his main priority was a close relationship between Congress and the President in a safe reopening for the economy, noting that the

Currently, the $600 weekly addition in unemployment expires Friday and remains a key point of contention as Congress continues to struggle in reaching an agreement on an additional coronavirus relief bill.

Mask Mandate

Both candidates opposed the Governor’s mask mandate issued yesterday, with Ebben citing limited resources from law enforcement in regards to enforcement; several sheriff departments in Wisconsin have issued statements stating they will not be enforcing the mandate. Van Orden referenced a hope that the legislature will challenge the edict.

“That is where we move away from capitalism and into socialism,” Van Orden noted. “Don’t get me wrong. COVID-19 is real. It is something that needs to be confronted soberly and seriously. We have to find a balance between personal rights and public safety.”

“The government should not have the ability to mandate masks,” Ebben said. “This is an infringement on our constitutional rights; our God-given rights.”

School reopenings

Candidates advocated for a safe school reopening environment, and discussed concerns about the mental health and social concerns for students in a virtual learning environment.

“There’s definitely ways we can do this,” Ebben said of returning children to school safely, citing the Tomah School District model as an example of a safe reopening plan.

Health Care

On the issue of health care, Ebben--who noted that she has worked for Prevea Health--advocated for a competitive option for health care including health share programs and other private options. Van Orden, citing a background in emergency and combat medicine as well as hospital health care, focused on a promise that he would not back a bill that did not include coverage for preexisting conditions, as well as decreasing pharmaceutical influence in D.C.

Mail-in voting

After President Donald Trump--who also floated a delay of the November election--tweeted about issues with mass mail-in voting, both Ebben and Van Orden opposed mass mail-in voting, citing election security concerns. Claims about the dangers of voting fraud in mass mail-in voting have been frequently challenged or debunked.

“If we do mass mailings of absentee ballots of anyone who’s been on a voting roll, it will lead to voting fraud on a mass scale,” Van Orden said.

*The primary election will take place August 11; on the Democrat side of the ticket, Ron Kind faces Mark Neumann of La Crosse. WPR will hold a debate on August 6 for the Democrat candidates, which WSAW plans to cover.

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