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GOP primary debates in New York's 22nd congressional district contentious, tense

Claudia Tenney for Congress; Steve Wells for Congress; George Phillips for Congress
Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, businessman Steve Wells and teacher George Phillips.

The three Republican candidates running to replace retiring Rep. Richard Hanna (R-Barneveld) in New York's 22nd Congressional District competed in four debates in June. Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, Cazenovia businessman Steve Wells and Binghamton teacher George Phillips have showed few differences on major policy issues, but there was no shortage of friction.

Throughout the debates, the candidates kept referring back to a central theme: reign in Uncle Sam. The three conservatives were in unison about rolling back regulations, lowering tax rates and reducing the national government's role in education. But they said the federal government did have a part to play in securing the country's borders. Phillips stressed that he supports immigration for those who have been waiting in line on a debate on WIBX's First News With Keeler.

"We do need to secure the border," Phillips said. "We do need to not give a free pass to those who are here illegally."

Despite their common conservative leanings, the candidates did show slight disagreement on how to tackle some of the country's most pressing issues. They said calls for more gun control following the deadly mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub doesn't get at the heart of the problem. Claudia Tenney said on Time Warner Cable News that the focus should be on defeating ISIS because the shooter expressed support for the terrorist group.

"The answer is not to put more onerous rules on our legal gun owners," Tenney said. The issue, again, goes back to our security, background checks."

Phillips and Tenney said they opposed the gun control measures that recently failed on the Senate floor, but Wells said he would be open to an amended version of one of those bills that would stop people on the suspected terrorist watch list from purchasing guns, as long as they have the ability to appeal it.

"There's got to be a way that they have a way to be cleared off that list before we violate their civil right," Wells said.

Wells also broke from the pack on abortion. He said debating the issue was a waste of time because the supreme court has already legalized it.

"This is what the Congress can do: we can waste our time fighting about things or, as a business person I can tell you what we need to do is get jobs growing here in upstate New York and we got real issues with our national security." Wells said.

Yet it did not take long for each debate to devolve into a divisive argument. Tenney repeatedly went after each of her opponents, which is emblematic of what has become a very acrimonious primary battle. She ripped into wells and his company's $10,000 donation to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's campaign.

"Somebody ask Steve Wells, please, why would you give $10,000 to Cuomo's campaign if you don't support his policies. Why?" Tenney asked.

"Well the assemblywoman loves to throw stones but she doesn't get her facts right," Wells responded. "Our company doesn't have millions in contracts and she knows that-"

"It's true," Tenney said. "Cuomosbiggestdonor.com."

"She's making pay to play allegations, there's utterly no proof of this," Wells said.

Tenney also criticized endorsements Phillips has received saying they should be discounted because from the political establishment. Hamilton College professor Philip Klinker said Tenney's aggressive style is likely a result of the multiple negative ads run against her by an outside political action committee, supported by the Oneida Indian Nation.

"Negative advertising works pretty well and whenever you start running negative ads the tone is going to change, the bitterness level is going to rise," Klinkner said.

Those ads were brought up in the debates, leading to a spat between Tenney and Phillips on WIBX's First News with Keeler.

"I have nothing do with these all these ads that you're talking about here," Phillips said. 

"You haven't condemned a single ad and you know that these aren't true," Tenney said. "And you know you've had $600,000 provided by the Washington establishment."

A recent poll by the newly independent Liberty Opinion Research group found that Tenney is neck and neck with Wells 32 to 31 percent, with Phillips in a distant third. The primary vote takes place on June 28 and the Republican victor will go on to battle Democrat Kim Myers, a Broome County legislator. The 22nd Congressional District covers portions of eight counties.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.