The last time two-term Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was on a prime-time debate stage was in 2016 when he wilted under withering personal attacks by then-fellow Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who famously belittled him as “Little Marco.”
During their U.S. Senate debate at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth on Oct. 18, Rep. Val Demings (R-Fla.) tried to again rattle Rubio by using similar schoolyard tactics, aggressively and repeatedly calling him a liar and disparaging his 12-year record in Washington and eight years in Tallahassee, where he served as Speaker of the House 2006-08.
But this time, Rubio didn’t lose his footing, and dished it out as much as Demings did in their first—and only—debate, calling the three-term congressional rep and former Orlando Police chief an “extremist” who espouses across-the-board “crazy” progressive policies.
While the hour-long event, hosted by WPBF 25 in West Palm Beach and staged three weeks before voters go to the polls on Nov. 8, was often contentious and larded with insults, it also offered moments of substantive clarity with articulated distinctions between the incumbent and challenger.
There was even consensus, of sorts. Both pledged to lobby for more federal assistance for Floridians in Hurricane Ian’s wake—Rubio touting his record in securing long-term recovery investments after past storms and Demings saying it’s past time “to get serious about climate change”—and agreed to continue backing Ukraine in defending itself from Russia while bolstering NATO.
When it came to other topics—inflation, abortion, respective legislative performances, insurance reform, election integrity, gun violence, and immigration—there was also consensus with both candidates agreeing the other was wrong, and dangerously so.
The Rubio-Demings contest is among 34 U.S. Senate seats on the Nov. 8 ballot. The chamber is currently evenly divided with both parties certain they have plotted paths to securing a majority in 2023.
Few believed Florida was on that path for Democrats. Rubio is projected by Cooks Political Report, among other elections forecasters, to secure a third term. Polls have him leading by 4 to 6 percentage points.
But Demings’ campaign has out-raised Rubio’s and she has doggedly managed to stay within striking distance of an upset with a spirited offensive designed to appeal to unaffiliated voters, the Sunshine State’s swing constituency.
Demings needed to come out firing and Rubio needed to show he could take a blow and return fire. By that standard, both delivered.
Rubio said businesses and families are seeing incomes shrink as prices rise because of President Joe Biden’s and Congressional Democrats’ economic and energy policies
He said the last pandemic relief package, the 2021 American Rescue Plan, was bloated and is among the chief contributors to current inflationary woes.
“The first thing we have to start doing is stop spending that kind of money,” Rubio said, noting that inflation was already a concern after the first two pandemic bills were adopted in 2020. “The Democrats were warned that if you do this, you’re going to fire up inflation.”
Among the solutions, he said, is to unleash the nation’s domestic oil producers instead of “begging” for oil from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. He called proposals to add up to $10.25 in taxes on each barrel “crazy stuff” that “only adds to the inflation.”
“We’re producing 1 million barrels per day less than we used to do just a couple of years ago,” Rubio said, calling Biden’s plan to release oil from the nation’s strategic reserve a political ploy.
“Oil reserves do not exist to win midterms,” he said, “they exist to help this country in an emergency or in the midst of a storm.”
Demings said Rubio’s response was typical of someone “who has never run anything at all but his mouth” and that he has no idea how to help real people with real problems.
The pandemic relief packages were necessary and helped keep businesses afloat, save jobs, and help stressed families, she said.
“Individuals were hurting, families were hurting, businesses were hurting, we passed the CARES Act—which the senator supported,” Demings said, noting Rubio was among the sponsors of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) in the CARES Act.
“You love to take credit for” the PPP, she said. “Some say it was poorly written, some say it didn’t help the people that it was supposed to, didn’t save the jobs it was supposed to. There was a way to fix the problems in the PPP through the American Rescue Plan and help people that were in trouble, but you played politics, Senator. And you did not do that.”
Not surprisingly, this debate component devolved into verbal fisticuffs with both candidates interrupting and talking over each other; each accusing the other of not being honest about their allegedly extremist positions.
Essentially, Demings said Rubio would outlaw abortion without exception while Rubio said Demings would allow abortion “on demand, for any reason, at any time, including the moment before birth.”
Asked about signing onto Sen. Lindsay Graham’s (R-S.C.) proposed bill, Rubio said he did so because he supports its ban on abortion starting at 15 weeks of pregnancy.
“It’s a four-month ban,” he said. “It’s more lenient than every country in Europe except two. That’s where the majority of the American people are and I respect and understand that.”
Rubio said his support for the bill is not a surprise. “Number one, I’m 100 percent pro-life. Not because I want to deny anyone their rights, but because I believe innocent human life is worthy of the protection of our laws,” he said. “That said, every bill I’ve ever sponsored on abortion, every bill I’ve ever voted for, has exceptions. Every one of them does.”
Untrue, Demings railed, turning directly to her opponent and asking, “How gullible do you think people in Florida are?”
As Orlando Police chief, Demings said she investigated many rapes, including of children, and said she knew then that if Rubio had his way, abortion would be banned with “no exceptions, including rape and incest.”
“No, Senator, I don’t think it’s OK for a 10-year-old girl to be raped and have to carry the seed of her rapist,” she said. “No, I don’t think it’s OK for you to make decisions for women and girls, as a senator. I think those decisions are made between the woman, her family, her doctor, and her faith.”
Demings said Rubio’s claim that she supports “abortions up to the time of birth is just a lie,” adding that in his view, apparently “the life of a mother” is “kind of a side issue.”
Rubio cited 11 cases of a child being born alive during a failed abortion in Florida in 2017. He said it happened eight times in 2020.
“A child in a failed abortion, born alive,” he said. “And we have doctors in America that refuse to treat or provide medical care to a child born alive. We tried to pass a bill to ban that; we said that’s infanticide” but it failed because Democrats, including Demings, voted against it.
“That’s how extreme she is,” Rubio stated.
“We know the senator supports no exceptions,” Demings countered. “He can make his mouth say anything today. He’s good at that, by the way. What day is it, and what is Marco Rubio saying?”
She said she will fight to protect a woman’s right to choose to the “point of viability,” adding, “We are not going back to a time when women are treated like second-class citizens or property, no matter how obsessed you are”
“When is that?” Rubio asked, noting that Demings won’t define “viability” because she supports abortion without limits.
Demings, whose campaign has made Rubio’s near 10-percent absence from roll call votes an issue, attacked his record on Medicare and Social Security, dismissing his campaign’s claims that she espoused a “socialist” budget.
But she does—no matter what you call it, Rubio said. “Socialist, Marxist, crazy. I’m open to suggestions.”
He said the American people are fortunate that Republicans were hands-on in passing the CARES Act in 2020 while Democrats “were sitting at home, in the house, in their pajamas doing Zoom calls.
“The truth of the matter is,” Rubio continued, “if we hadn’t done that, we would’ve had a meltdown in this country. We saved millions of businesses, I am incredibly proud,” calling it “a bipartisan achievement” Demings contributed little to.
“The congresswoman likes to talk about helping people, but she’s never passed a bill. She’s never passed a single bill. She’s been in Congress for over half a decade, never passed a bill. Not PPP, not anything. Not a single bill.”
Untrue, Demings retorted, saying she was “seriously disappointed” in Rubio. “There was a time, when you did not lie in order to win. I don’t know what happened to you, you know that is not true.”
Among adopted bills she’s sponsored is “legislation to help law enforcement officers with mental health programs,” she said, claiming during his first term in the Senate, Rubio voted “basically to abolish Medicare and turn it into an underfunded voucher program. Then you gave the biggest tax break to the richest of the rich, and then said that you’d pay for it with cuts to Social Security and Medicare.”
Rubio said Demings was lying and said his claim that Congress “had not passed any legislation that she sponsored” would withstand a fact-check. The only legislative success she’s had is sponsoring bills to name post offices, he said.
Untrue, Demings said. “The senator has obviously resorted to lying, cheating, and trying to steal, but it’s embarrassing that you think honoring a person who is a hero by naming a building after them is nothing. I think honoring a police officer who was killed in the line of duty is everything, Senator. It matters to his family, it matters to his community, it matters to his department, it matters to me. I think it’s sad that it doesn’t really matter to you.”
Both candidates were asked if they would accept 2022 election results. Both said they would, with Demings vowing to “uphold the Constitution, protect the rule of law, and protect each person’s—Republican, Democrat, Independent’s—right to vote.
“That’s what I did as a police officer and a police chief,” she continued. “I took an oath that I would protect and serve, defend the Constitution not just for people who looked like me, or the richest of the rich. For all people.”
When asked if he would accept election results, Rubio said he’s “never denied an election—ever. … I think in Florida we have great election laws, but I think elections have to have rules.”
Rubio said Demings is among Democrats who want to force a “federal takeover of elections” who supports “not asking for ID” to vote. “You have to ask for ID to get into her neighborhood, where she lives. You have every right to have that, but you can’t ask for it when they vote?”
Rubio said if Demings had her way, voting laws “allowing people to drive around with a trunk full of absentee ballots, allowing people to basically register an hour before, same day of the election, to just show up and vote and inject chaos. We have to have rules and they have to be followed.”
He said he would have no problem accepting election results. “ … absolutely, because I’m going to win. I look forward to supporting that. Yes, no matter what the outcome is, I’ll support it, because Florida has good laws.”
Gun Control v. Gun Rights
Asked if he still supported his 2018 statement that among ways to reduce gun violence is to outlaw anyone under 18 from purchasing a semi-automatic rifle, Rubio said no because such a law would not prevent the violence it seeks to thwart.
“We had a shooter last Thursday, tragic, in North Carolina, but he was 15. Where did he get the gun? He didn’t get it from a gun show,” he said. “He certainly didn’t buy it. He’s 15 years of age. We’ve had shootings in the state. Pulse—it was a terrorist attack. A licensed security guard, with a permit to carry firearms, extensive background checks. The guy in Parkland, this killer, everybody knew who it was—even before they announced it, everybody knew who it was.”
The “fundamental issue,” he said, “is why are these people going out and massacring people? I think the solution to this problem is to identify people acting this way and stop them before they act.”
Demings said gun violence victims’ family members are “asking themselves, ‘What in the hell did he just say?’ You’ve done nothing” to reduce gun violence.
Rubio “thought he could get a pass for the mass shootings that we’ve had in our state and doing nothing significant to do anything about it.”
Demings called for more Border Patrol “boots on the ground,” U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service processors, and technology upgrades to secure the border to better separate those legitimately seeking asylum from criminals, smugglers, and others
“We’re a nation of laws. We have to enforce the law, but we also obey the law that says that people who are in trouble can seek asylum in this country,” she said.
“Which boots does she want on the ground?” Rubio mocked, noting Demings opposed the border wall, has supported policies that cut border funding, and doesn’t want more INS processors for security but to get people across the border faster.
Rubio said he supported Biden’s denial of asylum for Venezuelan immigrants, which was also Trump’s policy.
“I sympathize deeply with what these people are facing,” he said, but the time to put tighter controls on the influx of immigrants has come. “This cannot continue. It has to be fixed. No country in the world can tolerate that.”