Trump-backed congressional candidate Joe Kent has been accused of spreading conspiracy theories after he called the Covid vaccine an “experimental gene therapy” during a testy, sold-out debate in Washington state.
Little more than 40 days before voters across the country go to the polls in the midterm elections, Mr Kent clashed with Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, in their first debate in the showdown for Washington’s third congressional district.
In a debate held in the city of Vancouver, Washington, located about 150 miles south of Seattle, the pair clashed over abortion rights, whether or not to accept federal funding for local projects, and even the war in Ukraine.
Mr Kent said Mr Perez was typical of all Democrats who were only interested in securing more “pork” even if it pushed up the cost of overall government spending.
Ms Perez accused Mr Kent of being more interested in becoming a Fox News “celebrity”, than he was in meeting the needs of the working people in Washington state.
The debate, a sold-out, 500-seat event held at the RV Inn Style Convention Centre, that was also watched on livestream by up to 600 people, was the first opportunity for voters to see the two candidates together.
“My opponent has spent the last two years preparing for tonight practicing on TV. I've spent the last two years running a small business and I think that's the experience that's really missing from Congress today,” Ms Perez said in her opening remarks. “Joe Kent has no interest in doing anything in our district. His agenda is to purge Republicans from the party.”
In his remarks, Mr Kent, who has become a popular guest on Fox News and other right wing channels, said: “Right now our economy is actually being destroyed by Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats at every level.”
He added: “You are going to have one month of wages stolen from you, thanks to the inflation that has been driven by Biden's economic, and especially, his energy policies.”
Mr Kent, 42, has been campaigning for the seat for about a year, while Ms Perez, 36, entered the race in May.
Mr Kent has styled himself as a Maga-style populist, opposed to the US becoming economically or militarily involved in foreign nations. He wants to strictly limit immigration to the US.
He has also supported Mr Trump’s false claim that the election was rigged, albeit with the caveat that such claims ought to be thoroughly investigated.
The candidates were asked whether they would support the budget reconciliation bill that would secure a major spending package providing more money to tackle the climate crisis, and lower the cost of prescription drugs.
“We need to slow down the cogs of government and be diligent about every single penny we spend because we are in a major hurt right now as far as our finances and our economy goes,” said Mr Kent. “We cannot continue to spend at a massive deficit and let lobbyists and corporate governments dictate the trillions of dollars that we spend. So I'm a firm no on omnibus spending.”
Ms Perez said: “I just want everyone to acknowledge that Joe Kent just said he's not going to bring home federal dollars. He wants our tax dollars, that we pay the federal government, to go out to other states like California and fix their problems. This is not a sensible policy.”
Mr Kent, who told The Independent earlier this year that he had not been vaccinated against Covid, has been critical of the approach taken by Washington governor Jay Inslee during the pandemic. He has also called for the arrest of Dr Anthony Fauci, the government’s outgoing chief medical officer.
The pair were asked about what differently they would do to handle the pandemic, with the benefit of hindsight.
“I am grateful that I do not see a mask mandate coming back, because we've got to follow the science on this and the science says we have a vaccine. That's just the reality. The past two years have been hell for so many of us,” said Ms Perez. She said the country was not going to move forward with calls for Mr Fauci’s arrest and other “clickbait” politics.
Mr Kent was asked to respond to the same question.
“We can never allow our economy to be locked down again by the dictates of our leaders who are acting like tyrants and never again to government mandated lockdowns,” he said. He said he wanted to reinstate government employees and members of the military who had lost their jobs for refusing “to take the experimental gene therapy vaccine”.
In comments that led to gasps from some in the the crowd, Mr Kent said: “Anthony Fauci and a lot of his underlings, were running amok as unelected bureaucrats, funding gain-of-function research under the nose of our federal government. They were funding the very same people who cooked up the Covid 19 virus in the Wuhan Institute of [Virology] and Fauci must be held accountable for that.”
Mr Perez said to some laughs: “Does anyone else feel like they just spent a month on YouTube? And that's what we're signing up for with Joe Kent. He thinks he can raise a lot of money saying stuff like this. And maybe he can, but he’s doing nothing to heal our country.”
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention says the coronavirus was first reported in China and “epidemiologists determined that the virus possibly came from an animal sold at a market”.
Joe Biden last year asked US intelligence to re-investigate questions about the role of China, but there has been no conclusive evidence made public.
Mr Kent and Ms Perez agreed to hold several debates after the pair succeeded in getting to the general election in November, after succeeding in an open primary in August.
The district had been held by Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler, who was first elected in 2010 and reelected five times.
But Ms Herrera Beutler was one of ten Republicans in the House of Representatives who supported the impeachment of Donald Trump for his alleged incitement of the Jan 6 riot. Mr Trump vowed to back challengers to each of the ten who remained in office, and last September the former president endorsed Mr Kent, a former special forces soldier, whose wife, a Navy cryptographer, was killed by an Isis bomb in Syria.