After facing off at a March 3 forum sponsored by the Buncombe County Republican Party, incumbent U.S. House Rep. Patrick McHenry beat challenger Ken Fortenberry in a straw poll, 41 votes to 23.
Both candidates are vying to be the party's nominee in the 10th District, which was redrawn last year to include most of Asheville. The district stretches southeast all the way to Gaston County and seems to favor a Republican victory in the November general election, according to voter history data provided by the state Board of Elections.
At the forum, Fortenberry told the 70 or so attendees that it was time for a change in leadership. "If you love what's happening in Washington … then continue the course, keep sending the same people up there," he said. Alluding to the fact that McHenry is serving his fourth consecutive term after first being elected to congress at the age of 29, he added: "We don't need a career politician who has never had a real job."
Fortenberry has a background in journalism, and currently owns the "news@norman" publication in Denver, NC. His experience with investigative journalism would serve him well in congress, giving him the skill set needed to make sense of the "mess" in Washington, he said.
"The media helps set the agenda for the politicians in this country," he said. "But I'm a man of conviction."
If elected, Fortenberry said his top priorities would be big spending and regulation cuts. President Barack Obama's health care reform needs to be repealed, he said.
"The government doesn't have any right to mandate medical care for anyone. … No one is entitled to medical care or insurance," he asserted. "The word entitlement makes my blood boil. I believe you should have reasonable access … but know one is entitled."
However, asked for specifics about what he would do to improve upon Obama's plan, he said: "What would take it's place? I don't have the answer."
Fortenberry also advocated dismantling the Department of Education.
"It has to go," he declared. "I have a real problem with public education. … The federal government has no business telling us how to run our schools."
Fortenberry added: "In my heart, I'm a conservative, and I'll stay true to that."
Meanwhile, McHenry defended his record, noting that he's been ranked as one of the most conservative members of congress by outside groups. A deputy majority whip, McHenry helps manage the legislative priorities of Republicans on the House floor. And he blamed the sluggish economy of the last few years on Obama.
"He's created a regulatory environment … and tax regime that sends jobs overseas," said McHenry. Noting that he voted against Obama's health care and banking reform plans – as well as his job stimulus program – McHenry said he wants to slash spending and "reign in the EPA."
In terms of energy policy, "this president is so beholden to very leftist groups and environmental extremists that he's unwilling to harness our own natural resources," he asserted. The U.S. government should allow vastly more oil drilling and other resource harvesting on public lands, he said.
On the tax front, he said he wants a "fairer, flatter tax." The chief role of federal government is national security, and practically every other federal department, program and initiative needs to be analyzed for cuts, he said.
Another priority should be eliminating the Department of Labor, he said, because "they're beholden to big labor."
He added: "Any department not specified in the constitution should be eliminated."
And any federal transportation and eduction funding should be dolled out to states in the form of block grants, rather than administered by federal agencies, he said.
In terms of health care policy, McHenry said "Obama care" needs to be replaced in "a methodical way." Advocating a three step approach to health reform, McHenry said the priorities should be allowing insurance to be purchased across state lines; allowing small businesses to band together when shopping for insurance policies; and substantial medical malpractice reform.
"We have to have more competition among health insurers," he said.
After the results were tallied, McHenry called the day's straw poll win "a nice response."
Don Peterson of Gaston County also filed last week to run in the Republican primary but didn't attend the forum.
Meanwhile, Democrats Timothy Murphy, Patsy Keever and Terry Bellamy are facing off in their party's primary, hoping to take McHenry's seat.