COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Debate season for Ohio’s open U.S. Senate seat kicked off Thursday night at North Columbus Baptist Church, where Republican Josh Mandel and Democrat Morgan Harper squared off despite the primary election still being months away.

But that didn’t stop the two anti-establishment candidates from seizing the spotlight to promote their platforms.

In a nothing-off-limits discussion, the two fielded questions in front of a crowd of about 50 people from moderators Cassie Young, co-founder and managing director of the nonprofit Matter News, and Dan Wolvin, pastor of North Columbus Baptist Church and director of the conservative ministry advocacy organization Awake America.

Both took aim at Rep. Tim Ryan, the favorite for the Democratic nomination. And early polling has Mandel, the former state treasurer, ahead in a Republican field that includes JD Vance, Mike Gibbons and Jane Timken. Each is seeking to replace Rob Portman, who chose not to run again. The primary election is scheduled for May 3.

Harper’s campaign linked arms with Mandel’s team after Ryan refused to debate her.

“I am not going to sit back and let the same old, unspoken establishment rules keep me from fighting,” Harper said in a tweet. “If that means defending my agenda in a debate against Mandel, then let’s do it.”

Mandel agreed, calling out Ryan for turning down Harper.

“I was interested in doing the debate [because] the establishment and Democratic party has been so disrespectful and frankly has just condescended on Morgan,” he said.

Mandel, a supporter of former President Donald Trump, has positioned his campaign on a “pro-God, pro-gun, pro-Trump” platform, touting efforts to combat the Democratic establishment that he said is infringing upon American freedom under current President Joe Biden.

“Because of the radical Biden administration, Pelosi, Schumer and others, our freedom and our liberty are under attack,” he said.

Harper, a community organizer who served in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under President Barack Obama, focused on her campaign’s refusal to accept corporate, special-interest PAC money and her desire to fight for working class people.

“We need to make sure we’re creating high-paying jobs in the future, we need to make sure we’re creating the training opportunities for people to work those jobs and making sure our citizens are healthy and safe — that’s why I want to be in the U.S. Senate,” Harper said. “(Mandel) wants to get there to obstruct, enable Donald Trump and his agenda.”

Most of the questions, Young said, were submitted by audience members with the aim of allowing Columbus residents to dictate the conversation.

Policing

When asked about whether police officers should receive qualified immunity, Harper said that “incidents of bad actors” in law enforcement must be held accountable for criminal misconduct — just like everyday people.

Mandel disagreed, calling for the continuance of qualified immunity for police officers, who he said are the “good guys” “afraid to do their jobs because they keep getting attacked by radical liberals like Morgan [and Columbus Mayor Andrew] Ginther.”

COVID-19

Mandel, who asserted that “coronavirus was a bioweapon” manufactured by the Chinese government to infiltrate the U.S. economy, said he wants to “defund” COVID-19 relief money for schools that refuse to open during the pandemic — and said he’s against vaccine mandates.

“The most important thing we can do to protect people’s jobs is to give them the freedom to decide whether or not to get a vaccine,” he said.

Harper called attention to lives we’ve lost to COVID-19 and the need to distribute more masks and tests “to prevent further infection.”

“While my opponent is burning masks for little jokes on Twitter, I’ve been working with people in Columbus and Franklin County to get thousands of masks to people,” Harper said.

Cryptocurrency

One of the few things the candidates largely agreed on was the use of cryptocurrency as a way to democratize money in the U.S.

Harper, while acknowledging the need to analyze the potential environmental and cybersecurity issues that could arise from a large-scale use of cryptocurrency, argued that digital currency is helping Ohioans make their mortgage payments.

A critic of big government, Mandel agreed that cryptocurrency could help decrease some of the government’s power to the hands of everyday people in the U.S. by providing people with greater autonomy over their financial decisions.

After driving 100 miles to attend tonight’s debate, Warren Taylor, 70, of Meigs County, said he’s been involved in politics since 1964 and took advantage of the opportunity to hear the viewpoints from both candidates.

“I think it was wonderful that it took place in a church — as a place that encourages us all to be our best selves,” he said.