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DECATUR — U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, and his Democratic challenger, Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, trod new turf in their third debate Monday night at Millikin University, setting themselves apart not only on health care and tax reform but also on trade issues.

It was only appropriate that trade and soybean tariffs would be a major topic since Decatur once called itself "The Soybean Capital of the World" and is the home of Archer Daniels Midland Co., an international food-processing company.

About 250 people attended the debate, which had to be closed after the venue reached capacity.

Davis, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee and is supported by national farm groups and companies, said that Chinese tariffs on soybeans "concern me, but I talk to a lot of farmers here in this area and in this district, and they want better trade deals."

"They invested their support in President Trump in the last election, and they now have results with preliminary agreements" with markets outside of China, said the three-term congressman who is a graduate of Millikin University. "But we also want to hold bad actors accountable, like China, and I believe this administration is seeing the positive results when it comes to trade. And I'm very concerned" about trade issues with China. "The administration clearly knows that from me."

He said another top Republican — Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue — would come to central Illinois this week to campaign with him. Perdue joins a list of national political figures that includes House Speaker Paul Ryan and former Speaker John Boehner who have come to the 13th District to shore up Davis' support in what pols say is a close race.

"The administration and the farmers in this district know that I'm fighting for them," Davis said. "The farmers are with me. That's why I have the support of virtually every agricultural organization in Illinois and in this country."

Londrigan, however, said that the trade war with China would cost Illinois soybean farmers $1 billion in lost trade.

"Our soybean farmers have lost 20 to 25 percent (of the value) of their crop since March," she said. "I have heard a gradual evolution from our farmers. In the beginning, they wanted to believe that President Trump was going to be able to make things better, that he was a businessman.

"Those days are long gone because our small family farms are suffering, and they don't know where their markets are going to come from. The difference between what the EU can do (in terms of sales) and what China does is night and day."

She hit Davis for failing to defend soybean farmers in his district.

"I would expect that a representative who is sitting in the middle of soybean country to stand up to this administration and say, 'You can't do this,' and use their congressional authority and congressional position to defend the people in their district," Londrigan said after the debate.

Davis also said that he supports building a wall on the border with Mexico.

"We've got to do all we can to build a border structure at the areas that need it," he said. "It's not just about illegal immigration. It's about controlling drugs and controlling illegal guns. It's about controlling human trafficking.

"I voted for a bill that would have fully funded a border structure in the areas that we needed a border structure. No one is saying that we're going to build a wall in the middle of the Rio Grande."

Londrigan said she supports what she called "border security."

"We just simply can't take everyone coming through, and we need to know that we're keeping our families safe," she said. "We also do need comprehensive immigration reform, and both parties have failed."

Davis defended his support for the GOP tax-reform law, but Londrigan said it was unbalanced because most of the benefits went to "the special interests, the super-wealthy and corporations. That is really lopsided."

And while she said she supports permanent tax cuts for the middle class — something that wasn't a part of the GOP bill — "what that does is it adds another trillion dollars to our deficit."

Londrigan also criticized Davis for failing to hold large "town hall meetings" with constituents.

"At our open and public town halls, we get Democrats, Republicans, independents. It is a conversation, and that is a stark contrast to my opponent, who refuses to do open and public town halls," she said. "I argue that that is the job. The job is to represent everybody, not just the ones who agree with you."

Davis countered that he holds "open, free meetings for our open office hours" for small groups.

Londrigan and Davis are scheduled to make one more joint appearance Monday in Normal.

Columnist

Tom Kacich is a columnist and the author of Tom's Mailbag at The News-Gazette. His column appears Sundays. His email is tkacich@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@tkacich).