FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, file photo, Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., speaks to supporters at his victory celebration in Lexington, Ky. Barr faces Democratic challenger Josh Hicks in a televised debate, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, in the hotly contested race in Kentucky’s 6th District. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)
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A fiery debate between Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr and his Democratic opponent Josh Hicks turned personal as they clashed over the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The televised faceoff in the hotly contested 6th District race came as absentee ballot voting has begun in Kentucky and early in-person voting starts next week ahead of the Nov. 3 election. The congressional district covers portions of central and east-central Kentucky.

Barr touted his record in office, including his work on a bill that recently passed the House to create national medication and safety standards for the signature horse racing industry. Hicks pointed to his rural roots and background as a Marine and police officer while projecting a populist message.

The back-and-forth became personal when each accused the other of distorting his record.

Hicks, a Lexington attorney, said that Barr lied about some lawsuits he filed as part of his practice. Barr said his challenger lied about his stances on health care policy, with the congressman saying he supports protecting coverage for people with pre-existing health conditions.

Barr has voted multiple times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which includes protections for those with pre-existing conditions. Barr said the law drove up health insurance premiums and forced some to give up their doctors. Hicks supports the health care law but said it can be improved.

Much of the hourlong debate Monday night revolved around the coronavirus outbreak. The discussion came as Kentucky is in the midst of another spike in COVID-19 cases.

Barr defended the federal response to the health crisis while Hicks gave President Donald Trump's administration a failing grade during the debate, held in Lexington.

Barr said he was “particularly proud" of the congressional response, saying a virus relief package passed earlier this year pumped financial support to shore up businesses. Those federal loans provided a “lifeline that has saved countless Kentuckians’ jobs,” the congressman said.

Hicks countered that lives are still being lost to the virus, businesses are “still half open, half closed" and the country lacks “good federal guidance" to combat the threat. He also mentioned the virus outbreak that has infected Trump and some in his inner circle.

“If you have an outbreak in your White House and your press secretary gets it and the first lady gets it, and the president gets it and three Republican senators get it and all these other folks get it, I don’t know how you can give that anything other than an F,” Hicks said.

The debate also turned testy and personal during a lengthy discussion about health care.

Barr said it was “downright offensive" to claim that he doesn't support protecting coverage for people with pre-existing health conditions. Barr noted that his wife died in June from a pre-existing condition and his sister lives with a chronic illness.

Hicks called access to health care a human right, and said it's under attack from the latest effort — now before the U.S. Supreme Court — to dismantled the Affordable Care Act. Hicks, a former Republican, said the GOP lacks a plan to replace the law.

“They just want to get rid of it," he said.

Meanwhile, Barr touted his work on legislation to create national medication and safety standards for the horse racing industry He called it a “transformational” measure to preserve the key sector's future. The 6th District is in the heart of Kentucky's thoroughbred industry.

Hicks downplayed Barr's role, saying the bill “was never going to happen until Mitch McConnell approved it and you know that because you worked on it for six years. Until he came down and patted you on the head and told you to go, you never got it passed.” McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, is the Senate majority leader.

The bill's passage in the Democratic-controlled House sent it to the Senate.

Hicks closed the debate by offering a populist message while referring to himself as “a kid from Fleming County” in rural Kentucky who went on to serve as a Marine and police officer.

He said he got in the race in part because he's “sick and tired of politicians selling us out to pharmaceutical companies, to Wall Street, to payday lenders."