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5 takeaways from contentious US Senate debate between Val Demings and Marco Rubio

The two argued over abortion rights, guns and immigration policy in the lone debate of a contentious U.S. Senate race that’s set to conclude in three weeks.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and his challenger, U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., greet each other before a televised debate at Duncan Theater on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach County on Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and his challenger, U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., greet each other before a televised debate at Duncan Theater on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach County on Tuesday. [ THOMAS CORDY | AP ]
Published Oct. 19, 2022|Updated Oct. 19, 2022

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.

Related: Val Demings outspending Marco Rubio in a big way in TV, radio campaign ads

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.

Related: Tampa Bay Times 2022 General Election Voter Guide: Local candidates on the issues

Here are five takeaways from the debate:

STIMULUS FIGHT

It didn’t take long for the debate to become testy.

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.

“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.

U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., participates in a televised debate with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at Duncan Theater on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach County on Tuesday.
U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., participates in a televised debate with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at Duncan Theater on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach County on Tuesday. [ THOMAS CORDY | AP ]

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.”

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 weeks, said he was “100% pro-life.” The bill includes exceptions for cases of rape and incest. Rubio is personally against such carve-outs, 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.

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U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., participates in a debate with U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., at Duncan Theater on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach County on Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., participates in a debate with U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., at Duncan Theater on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach County on Tuesday. [ THOMAS CORDY | AP ]

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 OK for a 10-year-old girl to be raped and have to carry her rapist’s seed. No, I don’t think it’s OK 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.”

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.”

FOREIGN POLICY

The war in Ukraine, Russia’s isolation from the West and the relationship between the U.S. and NATO leaders was also part of the discussion.

“We have to hold those who are not our friends accountable. And senator, that does include Russia – not just China,” Demings said. “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 the U.S. needs to “do everything in our power to protect our NATO allies.”

If Poland gets attacked, she said, there needs to be an immediate response. “The ultimate goal is keeping America safe and keeping our allies in NATO safe,” Demings said.

Related: Post-Hurricane Ian, Florida midterm politics come roaring back

Rubio, however, emphasized that the response needs to be proportionate.

During the debate, Rubio, a ranking member in the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, argued NATO has already been attacked by Russia.

“I would argue to you tonight, that they’ve already attacked NATO. Because the Nord Stream pipeline underwater that supplies Germany from Russia has been bombed. It was bombed,” Rubio said. “And everyone’s wondering, I saw a news report where they’re saying Russia may have done it. Well, who else did it? … Belgium? Of course it was the Russians.”

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., participates in a debate with U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., at Duncan Theater on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach County on Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., participates in a debate with U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., at Duncan Theater on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach County on Tuesday. [ THOMAS CORDY | AP ]

Explosions that damaged the major natural gas Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines from Russia to Germany have been blamed on sabotage, officials in Europe said on Tuesday. Top Polish and Ukrainian leaders have blamed Moscow, but Russia state media has suggested U.S. or Ukrainian involvement, according to the New York Times.

The debate’s moderator cut off Rubio shortly after this became a subject in the debate.

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.”

U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., participates in a televised debate with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at Duncan Theater on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach County on Tuesday.
U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., participates in a televised debate with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at Duncan Theater on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach County on Tuesday. [ THOMAS CORDY | AP ]

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

DEMINGS ON OFFENSE

Demings acted like a candidate who knew she needed a good night.

The Democratic congresswoman mocked, criticized and laid into her Republican counterpart nearly any chance she got, trying her best to show any lingering undecided voters that she’s a better fit for the office.

Her most common attack focused on Rubio’s long career in elected office, which began in 1998, contrasting it with her career as a law enforcement officer.

“Your No. 1 job as a United States senator is to protect the health, safety and well-being of the American people,” Demings said. “You’ve been at it for 24 years.”

Related: Val Demings' ad criticizes Rubio’s attendance record

The approach was attention-getting, although it did not appear to knock Rubio significantly off balance at any moment in the debate. The senator, when he engaged, took pains to describe himself as a lawmaker of substance who had passed laws to help Florida families, in contrast with a congresswoman who had yet to leave a mark on Congress.

When Demings said he likes to “play national security expert,” he was ready with a retort: “I don’t know what she means by ‘play national security expert, I’m the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee and a previous chairman, so it’s actually my job.”

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