VANDALIA — Candidates for the Republican nomination in the 15th District congressional race sparred during a radio debate over the weekend in Vandalia.
Incumbent U.S. Rep. John Shimkus and challenger State Sen. Kyle McCarter appeared to get a little irritated with one another during the hour-long debate. In fact, the candidates were so anxious to respond at times that moderator Todd Stapleton felt the need to remind the men to stop interrupting one another.
McCarter said after the debate that he was irritated with how Shimkus portrayed his record as a state senator.
"I am offended with what he is trying to do to my character," McCarter said.
Shimkus said after the debate that McCarter can't run away from his record.
"I'm an elected official, so I have a record," the congressman said. "He (McCarter) is trying to run as this pristine outsider, but he's made votes and proclamations that are hard to defend."
Shimkus has been in Congress since 1996. McCarter is in his second term as a state senator.
Each candidate made opening statements before Stapleton asked a series of questions. In his opening statement, Shimkus took credit for stimulating the rise of the Republican Party in downstate Illinois.
"We used to have no Republican congressmen south of Springfield," he said. "Now we have three. We've brought conservative government to Southern Illinois."
McCarter touted his own strengths in his opening statement, while downplaying the significance of groups that have endorsed Shimkus, such as the National Rifle Association and National Right to Life.
"I am not endorsed by Washington," he said. "I have the people backing me. I believe I have the ideas and the energy to make a difference."
When asked about the biggest issues facing the country, Shimkus said President Barack Obama's policies on mineral extraction had damaged the downstate economy.
"The president's war on coal has been devastating to southern Illinois," he said.
Shimkus added that recent terrorist attacks in San Bernadino, California, and Paris have shown the American people that there are still dangerous people willing to kill and maim in the name of Islamist radicalism.
"People see we are still a nation at risk," he said.
McCarter agreed that the top issue was the economy. But he said there were other important issues.
"We have to protect the economy, protect our values and protect us physically," he said. "By voting for the omnibus bill, my opponent supported things like sanctuary cities and Planned Parenthood."
Shimkus responded that about half the money in that bill was earmarked for military purposes.
Shimkus argued that McCarter hasn't always acted in the best interests of the downstate economy, such as when he voted against a commitment to buy power from a proposed coal-fired power plant in Taylorville. But McCarter responded that the Tenaska project would have been a bad deal in a way that would have raised the price of power.
"It was a lie to the people," he said. "It was a ripoff to the taxpayers. I don't know where you get this distortion of the truth."
Shimkus told McCarter that he can't run from votes he has cast and comments he has made.
"Kyle, you have a record," he said.
But McCarter responded that Shimkus has too much of a record — that he's been in office far too long.
"I think term limits are important," McCarter said. "The Founding Fathers never meant this to be a career. The intent was to provide good government and get out."
The two men were also asked to assess the health of the Republican Party in the midst of a contentious presidential election cycle.
"I'm pretty excited about the election," Shimkus said. "I think our base is larger than it was."
"I like different things about each of the candidates," McCarter said. "I don't think we're in trouble."
Both men praised Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.
"I am not endorsing anybody, but Donald Trump seems to want to protect the American economy," he said. "He has a very strong stance on immigration, as well."
Shimkus said Trump has energized the Republican base and has possibly expanded it with his enthusiastic candidacy.
"I've enjoyed his participation in the process," the congressman said. "He's bringing new people into the discussion."
Bill Grimes may be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 132, at email@example.com, or via Twitter @EDNBGrimes.