PEORIA — The two candidates vying for the opening seat representing the 17th U.S. Congressional District had widely differing opinions on a variety of topics during a debate Monday night at Bradley University’s Hayden-Clark Alumni Center.
Republican Esther Joy King and Democratic nominee Eric Sorensen are seeking to follow retiring U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline, to Congress.
The congressional hopefuls are courting voters in a redrawn district that includes Peoria and Bloomington-Normal, extends westward to the Quad Cities and wraps back around to include Rockford a large portion of northern Illinois.
King, who is running for the second time after a narrow defeat to Bustos in 2020, said she wants to reverse Biden administration policies she sees as harmful to the economy.
“I believe reining in government spending will help us slow down the economy so that we can put money back in our paychecks, rather than the inflation that we’re seeing that’s costing so many of us so much money right now,” said King, adding she wants to bring people together to find solutions.
Sorensen, a former TV weatherman and first-time candidate who emerged from a crowded Democratic primary, said he’s spent his entire life in the 17th district and has a stronger grasp on the needs of constituents.
“We need someone who’s going to go to Washington and speak on our behalf, and that’s going to happen because I understand the people here and I understand what we need here,” said Sorensen, who also pledged to bring people together.
Political analysis organizations see 17th District race as a toss-up as the two parties battle for control of the next Congress. Early voting is already underway; Election Day is Nov. 8.
While neither candidate went deep into specifics, they did reveal how they differ on many issues.
King said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade brings the decision on legalized abortions issue closer to voters. She said she opposes abortion because of her faith, except in instances of rape, incest and the mother’s life.
“But we need to have a conversation here in the state of Illinois. We have some of the most extreme laws in the country under (Gov.) JB Pritzker, which my opponent celebrates — abortion up to and through birth, paid for by all of you with no parents involved. That’s not who we are; those aren’t our values,” she said.
Sorensen said the government should not be telling people what the can or cannot do with their bodies.
“Abortion is health care (and) health care is abortion,” he said. “By taking that right away, it takes away the right for a safe abortion. I think what my opponent has just said is really telling that she would legislate based on her faith.”
In response to a question about term limits for Supreme Court justices, Sorensen noted he would support federal legislation to codify the right to an abortion.
“We’re seeing today the effects of an extreme judiciary. We’re seeing the effects of rights being taken away for the first time in our lives,” he said. “When I go and knock on doors I talk with mothers and grandmothers who may shy away from using the ‘a’ word, but they’re absolutely certain that they don’t want the rights being taken away from their daughters and their granddaughters.
King said she would oppose term limits for Supreme Court Justices.
“The politicization of our legal system is hurting our country right now. We have one of the most brilliantly designed democracies, systems of government in the history of the world,” said King. “It is brilliant, what our founding fathers have done. It’s a system of checks and balances, and we need those checks and balances in our government right now.”
Both Sorensen and King said results of a CBS poll showing two-thirds of Americans fearing the U.S. democracy is at risk is alarming.
“People believe our country’s off track right now,” said King, who later noted she would not support a federal abortion ban. “Whether we talk about securing our elections (or) trusting our voting rights, that’s our voice. That’s the foundation of our democracy, to work to bring security and integrity to elections. That’s a priority.”
Sorensen said a major threat to the democracy comes from people willing to overlook the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and shows a need to have more people participating in the elections.
“What we saw was wrong, we have to stand up against that” he said. “We have to make sure that we’re utilizing the innovations that have happened in the pandemic to ease voting restrictions; we need to make sure that everybody who can lawfully vote can vote.”
Both candidates were asked if there’s an issue where they agree with the opposing political party. Sorensen said he would support significant immigration reform.
“We have to address that our immigration system is broken today,” he said. “We need to make sure that we’re solving the crisis at the border. We need to make sure that we know every person that’s crossing the border, and we have to secure it. That also means that we’re securing the ability for migrant farm workers to achieve the visas that they need.”
King said the number of migrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico has the effect of turning every state into a border state.
“We have to support our communities here with resources to help settle immigrants, help them get plugged in to find jobs, so that they can contribute to the community,” she said.
King said an issue where she agrees with the opposite party is limiting stock trading for members of Congress.
Midway through the debate, write-in independent candidate Natasha Thompson-Devine interrupted the moderators’ questioning, saying a vote for either King or Sorensen was merely a vote for their respective parties. Thompson-Devine, who was not invited to participate in the debate, was removed from the venue and banned from the Bradley campus.
Watch video of the debate below: