Takeaways from a contentious US Senate debate between Val Demings and Marco Rubio

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Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and U.S. Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) greet each other before a televised debate at Duncan Theater an the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach County, Fla., on Tuesday, October 18, 2022. (Thomas Cordy/The Palm Beach Post/Pool)

THOMAS CORDY/THE PALM BEACH POST/POOL

Democratic Rep. Val Demings and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio argued over abortion rights, recovery efforts from Hurricane Ian and immigration policy on Tuesday night, in the lone debate of a contentious U.S. Senate race that’s set to conclude in three weeks.

It’s a night Demings likely needed to win.

Since September, Demings has trailed Rubio in every single public poll of their race, with the incumbent Republican usually holding a small but significant edge.

The contest has been an uphill climb for the Orlando-area congresswoman, in a state that has trended Republican recently and amid a midterm election in which Republicans have momentum, thanks to President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings.

Still, Democrats will hope that Tuesday’s showdown provided enough voters reason to back the party’s favored candidate and deny Rubio a third term in the Senate.

Here are three takeaways from the debate:

STIMULUS FIGHT

It didn’t take long for the debate to turn contentious.

On the night’s second question, about federal stimulus money Congress approved to help withstand and recover from the coronavirus pandemic, Rubio said that Demings’ support for last year’s American Rescue Plan led to a surge in inflation. That earned a sharp rebuttal from the congresswoman.

READ MORE: Demings out-raises and outspends Rubio but still trails in Florida’s US Senate race

“The senator who has never run anything at all, but his mouth, would know nothing about helping people and being there for people when they are in trouble,” Demings said.

Rubio responded in turn that Demings has never passed federal legislation despite first winning a seat in the House in 2016.

“The Congresswoman likes to talk about helping people,” Rubio said. “She’s never passed a bill. She’s never passed a single bill.”

Things didn’t calm down from there, with Demings saying that the senator is “lying, cheating and trying to steal.”

READ MORE: Six burning questions for Rubio and Demings ahead of Tuesday night’s U.S. Senate debate

Abortion

Rubio and Demings shared a tense back and forth on the topic of abortion. But neither of them would answer the tough questions.

Rubio, who has co-sponsored legislation that would enact a national ban on abortion for pregnancies longer than 15 week, said he was “100% pro-life.” The bill includes exceptions for cases of rape and incest. Rubio is personally against such exceptions, but he did not say whether he would support a national abortion ban with no exceptions, brushing it off as a hypothetical bill that would never come up for a vote.

Saying abortions represent “the killing of an unborn human,” Rubio also painted Demings as an “extremist on abortion.”

Demings said those decisions should be made between “the woman, her family, her doctor and her faith.”

“No, I don’t think it’s okay for a 10-year-old girl to be raped and have to carry her rapist’s seed. No, I don’t think it’s okay for you to make decisions for women and girls. I think those decisions are made between the woman, her family, her doctor and her faith.”

READ MORE: Val Demings says she supports abortion up to ‘time of viability’ after Rubio attacks

Demings, however, would not say when asked about what limitations on abortion she would support. She said she supports abortion “up to the point of viability.”

But on the debate stage she did not clarify, when Rubio said: “What is that? That is the language they [Democrats] all give.”

In the past, Demings has explained that she believes that medical experts agree 24 weeks is considered to be the point of viability. But she also told the Miami Herald in September that women “should be able to sit down with the doctor and let their doctor tell them what the point of viability is.”

GUNS

Questions about access to firearms and the appropriate response to mass shootings — including at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando — elicited sharply different responses from the two candidates.

Rubio defended his support for allowing people under 21 to buy firearms, saying that even if he once backed such a measure, it wouldn’t have prevented a spate of recent mass shootings committed by assailants who were already not allowed to own guns. He then pointed to his support for “red flag” laws in Florida, even if earlier this year he opposed a federal version of the law.

Rubio in June voted against a gun control bill that would strengthen background checks and encourage states to adopt “red flag” laws. It gained the support of 15 Senate Republicans before reaching President Biden’s desk.

Demings rebutted that Rubio hasn’t been able to muster an appropriate response to the mass shootings, even though he launched his reelection in 2016 in part because of the shooting that year at the Pulse nightclub.

“Our primary responsibility is the safety of Floridians, and senator, in 24 years in elected office, and you have not yet risen to that occasion,” the congresswoman said. “And when asked about it, you say something that makes no sense.”

Rubio’s response also earned a rebuke from Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter was murdered at Parkland, who said the senator was rebeating the NRA’s line “verbatim.”

This is a breaking news item and may be updated.



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