After 90 minutes of taking and dishing verbal swipes on everything from voting records to their role as a Republican in the Trump era, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford and GOP primary rival Katie Arrington got to a chance to take direct aim at each other with a question of their own choosing.
Arrington went first, asking Sanford if he still supported closing the terrorist detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. He stood by it, calling it a representation of his belief in the American justice system.
"We're not going to hold somebody for 50 or 75 years without charges," he said. "I think that’s an important value. Do we like it? No. Well then, let's shoot them and get it over with."
Sanford asked her nothing.
The debate, hosted by the Charleston County Republican Party, was the first local public meeting of the two 1st Congressional District Republicans following a week where both campaigns ran a slew of attack ads against the other.
It also came with the June 12 GOP primary contest just 11 days away.
Friday night, the vitriol that had been broadcast over the airwaves spilled into the one-on-one debate aboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown at Patriots Point.
Sanford threw the first verbal punch within the first 10 minutes.
"In the short time that Ms. Arrington has been in office, she has voted to increase taxes and spending by $1.4 billion," Sanford said of her Statehouse voting record that he says adds substantially to the state's financial burden by increasing the state's gas tax and growing the pension responsibility.
Arrington, R-Summerville, refuted the claim.
"It was the only way," Arrington said of her Statehouse vote supporting the gas tax increase last year to fix state roads.
When asked about their role as a Republican at a time with the GOP controls the White House, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, Sanford said his first responsibility is to be a member of the team.
"Our first job is to listen to the captain," Arrington shot back, adding, "Mark Sanford has spent the better part of two years bashing our captain, President Trump, on CNN."
The back-and-forth continued throughout the debate. It took a question about the international Iran nuclear deal for both candidates to agree fully and without taking a dig at the other. The question came nearly an hour into the debate.
Both agreed the infrastructure needs facing the Lowcountry are critical, but Arrington criticized Sanford for not bringing in enough federal dollars while Sanford insisted that he refuses to sign and push for bills that cannot be paid for without sending the country into further debt.
Arrington kept her responses short, while Sanford cited specific legislative policies and his philosophies behind them.
Sanford touted the support he received from two major conservative groups within 48 hours of the debate: FreedomWorks for America, a limited government advocacy group, and Tea Party Patriots, the nation’s largest tea party group.
Meanwhile, Arrington has some heavy hitters going to bat for her in the race. Statehouse leaders House Speaker Jay Lucas and House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, who served under then-Gov. Sanford, are backing her congressional run, as is North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey.
When Arrington referenced that support, Sanford accused her of trying to "have her cake and eat it, too" by criticizing him for being a career politician when those endorsers have more than 100 years of combined political experience.
The dynamics of this race mirror the unfamiliar territory many Republicans are facing in midterms nationwide: Usually safe incumbents confronting election battles against other conservative contenders. Like Arrington, these primary challengers are running on a largely Trump-supporting, outsider-claiming, drain-the-swamp platform.
Gibbs Knotts, political science chair at the College of Charleston, said the recent attacks between Sanford and Arrington show a political fight intensifying.
"Sanford is a well-known fiscal conservative and a bit of a maverick, but he has a person on paper who he may have to worry about," Knotts said. "To run these negative ads against her could show a vulnerability, or it could be the seriousness with which they are taking this particular challenge."
Speaking after the debate about his decision to not ask Arrington a question, Sanford shrugged after shaking hands with supporters.
"We discussed ideas," he said of the lengthy debate, adding, "And nothing came to mind."
Arrington, on the other hand, took it in stride.
"What does he have to ask me?" she said. "He has no fight left in him. He doesn't have anything left to give this community. Of course he didn't ask me anything."
Dimitri Cherny, the third Republican candidate in the primary race, was not invited to attend the sold-out debate. Cherny, who sports a permanent Bernie Sanders tattoo on his forearm, has previously run as a Democrat and is running as a Republican this go-round.
He told The Post and Courier he planned to participate in the debate from afar by posting a video response to the night's questions on his YouTube page.
The winner of the GOP primary will face the victor of the Democratic primary race, which will be either Joe Cunningham or Toby Smith.