The two major party candidates in one of the most high-profile Senate races of the year litigated hot button issues for an hour in Lake Worth in their only scheduled debate.
After months of back and forth through ads and interviews, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and his Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Val Demings, finally were able to make their arguments in person, and they made the most of the opportunities from opening bell to close.
One such point of contention: the current affordability crisis. Asked to respond to increasing inflation, Rubio said “the first thing we have to do is stop spending that kind of money,” speaking of pandemic relief packages.
“They were warned. The Democrats were warned … if you do this, you’ll fire up inflation,” Rubio said, before tagging Demings as a supporter “of some of these crazy policies that are coming from the Left” such as a tax increase on crude oil.
On stopping inflation? “I think it begins by winning this election and getting people like that out of office,” Rubio added, gesturing to Demings in the first heated moment of the debate.
“The Senator, who has never run anything but his mouth, wouldn’t know anything about helping people and being there for them when they are in trouble,” Demings said, regarding pandemic relief.
She added that there were “problems” in the CARES Act, including the Paycheck Protection Program for which Rubio takes credit.
“Some say it was poorly written, some say it didn’t help the people it was supposed to, it didn’t save the jobs it was supposed to,” Demings said, asserting that Rubio “played politics” with the Paycheck Protection Program.
From there, an agitated Rubio said Republicans approved the program when “Democrats were sitting at home, in their pajamas doing Zoom calls,” before calling the plan a “bipartisan victory” that got “unanimous support.”
“If it hadn’t been done, there would have been a meltdown in this country … a depression in this country,” Rubio said, before again contending Demings was ineffective in Congress.
“I’m really disappointed in you,” Demings said. “Because I think there was a time when you did not lie in order to win. I don’t know what happened to you.”
The vitriol continued throughout the abortion discussion. Rubio, who backs a national abortion ban at the 15-week mark of gestation, said he was “100% pro life” and that the “extremist on abortion” in this campaign is Demings.
“She supports taxpayer-funded abortion, on demand, until the moment of birth,” Rubio claimed, leading to another incredulous Demings counter.
“How gullible do you think the voters of Florida are?” she asked, saying that Rubio supported a ban with no exceptions for rape and incest (though as he noted that’s not a condition of the current bill in the Senate), and that the “health of the mother” is “kind of a side issue” to the Senator.
Demings said she supported abortion “until the time of viability,” which left Rubio, who wanted a more specific answer, frustrated.
From there, the candidates bickered about the nature of democracy itself.
Asked if she would accept the results of the 2022 election, Rubio said he “never denied an election.”
“I’m not like Stacey Abrams in Georgia,” Rubio said, alluding to her disputing her loss in 2018.
State issues, including a hypothetical collapse of the Florida home insurance industry, also were broached.
“You don’t want the federal government involved in property insurance, believe me,” Rubio said, before blaming Florida’s insurance issues on “the cost of litigation” tied to “roof claims.”
“We are facing a looming crisis. I think it’s something that the state has to wrap its arms around,” Rubio said.
Demings, conversely, suggested the federal government should “care about what citizens in Florida and try to do something about it.”
“Marco Rubio has spent more time at the state level than anybody on this stage,” Demings retorted. “So what in the heck did he do about it when he was the Speaker of the House? He’s been in elected office since 1998.”
Rubio noted that he oversaw a Special Session under Gov. Charlie Crist, and said that he cared about the issue, noting he’s going to pay “eight or nine thousand dollars more” this year.
The debate also touched on Rubio’s purported reason for entering the Senate race after losing his bid for the Presidency in 2016: the Pulse nightclub shooting.
“You’ve done nothing to help address gun violence and get dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people,” Demings said, noting that Florida has a ban on the sale of assault weapons to people under the age of 21 after the Parkland massacre of 2018, but that Rubio won’t support a similar federal measure.
Rubio said that “Americans have the Second Amendment right to protect themselves,” noting his proposal for a “bipartisan red flag law” wasn’t strong enough for Democrats like Demings. Demings accused Rubio of trying to “pull the Second Amendment out” to obscure the issue.
The debate moved on from there, with Rubio asked his position on U.S. Sen. Rick Scott’s 12-point plan to “rescue America,” which includes language that would subject entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare to regular review by Congress.
“That’s not my plan. That’s Sen. Scott. He’s not shy. You should ask him,” Rubio said, before shifting to an attack on the “People’s Budget” that Demings voted for.
“Socialist, socialist, crazy, Marxist … we’ve seen this show before,” Demings said, contending that Rubio referred to Scott’s plan as “good ideas” before being confronted on the debate stage.
“There’s never been a vote on Rick Scott’s idea,” Rubio countered. “I don’t know what word you prefer: socialist, Marxist, crazy. I’m open to suggestions.”
After a spirited discussion of Scott, the topic turned to a potential nuclear escalation in Ukraine, and after close to an hour of sharp disagreement, the two agreed that a U.S. role in the region is necessary, in one of the rare moments of accord between the two.
“We cannot afford to have a nuclear attack and the United States has to do everything in its power to prevent that from happening,” Demings said.
Rubio urged that America be “very wary,” contending that Russia “could attack a NATO airport in Poland.”
“If Poland is attacked, there has to be an immediate response,” Demings agreed.
The spin started during the debate, and partisans chimed in almost immediately after, predicting victory for their candidate.
“While Demings pleaded for an undeserved promotion, Senator Marco Rubio brilliantly showcased his record of fighting for Floridians. Demings’ unyielding support of Joe Biden’s disastrous agenda makes her the perfect fit for early retirement from politics,” asserted RNC Spokeswoman Julia Friedland.
“Floridians have seen tonight just how radical and out-of-touch Val Demings truly is,” asserted Sen. Scott in his capacity as National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair.
“The decision is clear. Marco Rubio never stops working to represent the best interests of Florida families. He has fought for small businesses and veterans across the state as well as freedom and democracy across the globe. Florida families are rejecting Joe Biden’s radical agenda and they don’t want another Washington Democrat like Val Demings who votes with (Nancy) Pelosi and Biden 100% of the time. This November we will keep Florida red.”
RPOF Chairman Joe Gruters said, “Demings has been nothing but a rubberstamp for the Democrats, and we can’t afford to have another vote for their disastrous agenda in the Senate. Marco won the debate and he’s going to win on November 8.”
RPOF National Committeewoman Kathy King added, “Rubio demonstrated a sharp and articulate command of the facts about the most significant foreign and domestic policy challenges of our lifetime. Meanwhile, Val Demings was the victim of her own crime: supporting the Pelosi policies that Floridians reject.”
Demings’ campaign declared victory as well: “Tonight, Chief Val Demings held Marco Rubio accountable for failing to show up for work, and hurting Floridians when he does. Demings closed the debate by highlighting her personal story and making the case clear: this race is about a cop on the beat versus a career politician who doesn’t even show up for work.”