Four takeaways from the Rubio-Demings debate in Florida’s Senate race
By Lisa Lerer and Maggie Astor
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and his Democratic challenger, Rep. Val Demings, met for the only debate of the Florida Senate race Tuesday, a fast-paced, fiery faceoff that cruised through a series of the top issues affecting the country and the state.
Rubio, who participated in around a dozen debates as a Republican presidential candidate in 2016, was polished and quick. Taking a more evocative approach, Demings sought to cast him as heartless, disconnected from the human impact of his policies on issues like abortion and guns.
Still, she may not have gotten the kind of viral moment necessary to shift the trajectory of the race in her favor. For months, polls have shown Rubio with a lead in Florida, a perennial battleground state but one that has shifted to the right.
Here are four takeaways:
Sticking to the party line on abortion.
The candidates largely hewed to their party’s talking points on abortion rights, with each aiming to paint the other as extreme. Demings accused Rubio of supporting abortion restrictions without exceptions for rape, incest and life-threatening medical conditions.
“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.”
Rubio dismissed those attacks. While he called himself “100% pro-life” and indicated that he personally supported strict abortion laws, he cast the issue as theoretical, saying that bans without exceptions would be unable to pass because they lack popular support.
For his part, Rubio pressured Demings to name a clear week limit on the procedure, falsely accusing her of backing abortion “on demand, for any reason, at any time, including the moment before birth.” She replied that she supported abortion until viability — the standard set by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, commonly understood to be around 24 weeks.
A Florida phenomenon: property insurance chaos.
A portion of the debate focused on an issue that’s fairly specific to Florida: a property insurance market in free-fall. Homeowners in Florida pay the highest premiums in the country, nearly three times the national average, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Six Florida property insurance companies have been declared insolvent and others are canceling or not renewing policies.
Demings accused Rubio of doing nothing on the issue as a member of the state House, saying she had asked the governor to call a special session to tackle the crisis.
Rubio countered that there had been a special session when he was speaker in 2007. Legislation passed that year expanded the offerings and reduced the rates of the state’s insurer of last resort, Citizens Property Insurance. Rubio blamed former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running for another term as the Democratic nominee, for the sharp increase in rates since then.
The temperature rose when guns came up.
One of the most heated exchanges came when the moderator asked whether the candidates would support a federal ban on the sale of assault weapons to people under 21 — an idea that Rubio dismissed as useless, pointing out that a 15-year-old was accused in a recent shooting rampage in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“Where did he get the gun? He didn’t get it from a gun show. He certainly didn’t buy it. He’s 15 years of age,” Rubio said. Instead, he promoted a “red flag” bill he sponsored to allow law enforcement authorities to confiscate guns if a person shows warning signs of violence — while denouncing as “crazy” a red-flag provision in the bipartisan gun law that Congress passed this year.
He claimed that provision would allow “your co-worker who has a grudge against you” to “go to a judge and take away your guns.”
Demings responded with clear anger, accusing Rubio of betraying the victims of massacres in Florida like the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and the Parkland shooting, and of making promises to victims’ families that he “had no intentions of keeping.”
She went on: “How long will you watch people being gunned down in first grade, fourth grade, high school, college, church, synagogue, the grocery store, a movie theater, a mall and a nightclub, and do nothing?”
Rubio was more detailed on foreign policy.
Rubio gave more detailed responses than Demings to questions about China and about how the United States should respond if Russia used tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine or attacked a NATO ally.
Demings said repeatedly that the United States needed to hold Russia and China “accountable,” but gave no examples of what that might involve. At one point, she said that if China were to try to take over Taiwan, “there has to be a response,” and added that she and her colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee were discussing the matter.
Rubio also, to some extent, deferred to other decision makers; he said, for instance, that the response to an attack on a NATO member would have to be a joint decision by the alliance. He also threw in a mocking line about transgender people, suggesting that the Pentagon needed to focus on military superiority rather than “proper use of pronouns.”
But his responses contained a level of detail that Demings’ did not. Among other things, he discussed the range of ways Russia could escalate in Ukraine — short-range nuclear missiles and a conventional attack on an airport in Poland were two possibilities he mentioned — and called for efforts to decrease dependence on Chinese manufacturers and strengthen American military capacity in the Indo-Pacific region.
Near the end of the debate, Demings accused him of feigning foreign policy expertise, saying, “Look, the senator can play national security expert all he wants.”
Rubio replied, to applause: “I don’t know what she means by playing national security expert. I’m the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee and was the previous chairman of it, so it’s actually my job.”