The Republican seeking Connecticut’s open U.S. Senate seat, looking to reverse momentum in the race, purchased Internet ads saying she “won” a high-stakes debate Tuesday night.
But a Republican who’s not running stole the show after the curtain dropped—with outspoken positions on some key issues facing the next U.S. Senator from Connecticut, from the war in Afghanistan to energy and the environment. Issues that got scant if any discussion during the formal event.
During the official debate itself, the Republican who’s actually running for Connecticut’s open U.S. Senate seat, Linda McMahon, had one last chance to reverse momentum in the race in an unscripted faceoff Tuesday night. It didn’t happen.
She and Democratic candidate Richard Blumenthal held their third and final televised debate, at the Garde Arts Center in New London. The New London Day and WTNH sponsored the debate.
The two candidates Tuesday night repeated themes from previous debates. McMahon portrayed herself as a businessperson looking to create jobs and lower taxes running against a lifelong government insider looking to do the opposite. Blumenthal pressed a line that has helped him pull back to a lead in recent polls: He’s a public servant who has fought for people, while his opponent is allegedly against the minimum wage, has run a sleazy world wrestling operation that degrades women, makes its toys in China, and protects itself from being sued by the steroid-pumped wrestlers who die on the job. Blumenthal has grown feistier with each week, after months of allowing McMahon to attack him virtually unchallenged.
In terms of substance, in this debate Blumenthal continued to defend the idea of government service as a noble calling (fighting for people against corporations like Linda McMahon’s) and the right resume for a Senate seat; while McMahon continued to portray politicians as the root of the country’s problems, and “real life” business experience the right resume for a Senate seat.
As it did after a debate last week, McMahon’s campaign reversed banner ads on websites to proclaim her the victor as soon as Tuesday night’s event ended.
Although debates have not proved her strong point, McMahon still has lots of money to spend on trying to turn around the race in the more scripted, controlled arena of paid media. (She has promised to spend between $40 and $50 million on the race.) A new Fox News poll shows the race tightening again, with Blumenthal’s lead returning to single digits (6 percentage points in the Fox poll) after having shot up to double digits. No more debates are scheduled.
Scroll down for a blow-by-blow account of Tuesday night’s debate, complete with analysis and color commentary.
The first encounter between Blumenthal and McMahon, last week, was electric. Tuesday night’s was anticlimactic: No new themes, no new movement, no departure from the scripts.
Until afterwards. Then one candidate injected outspoken, straightforward positions into the debate.
That candidate—former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons—is no longer running. He had sought the Republican nomination in the Senate race this year; McMahon beat him in a primary.
Simmons showed up in the press room after the debate Tuesday night to spin for McMahon. But little spinning took place. Blumenthal showed up for a relaxed victory lap. And McMahon—who also showed up to spin after a debate last week in Hartford—fled before reporters in a pack could ask her questions, a process that hasn’t gone well for her lately.
In her absence, Simmons was asked what he would have said if he had been on the Garde stage Tuesday night. He had no advance notice of the questions, no time to prepare with staffers. Without missing a beat, Simmons reeled off positions on the war in Afghanistan (bring the troops home; we’ve declared defeat); energy costs (build nuke plants in Connecticut); and the environment (look hard at clean water and air regulations, and, again, build nukes). And he defended those positions. You might agree with him. You might disagree with him. You can’t say he was ducking questions, hiding behind poll-tested platitudes, or avoiding firm positions. Click on the play arrow to the video at the top of the story to watch what he said.
“I have devoted myself to helping people through public service,” Blumenthal said in one of many scripted lines both candidates repeated in the debate.
“Government does not create jobs. People create jobs. Entrepreneurs create jobs,” McMahon said.
Read on for the blow-by-blow account of the official debate.
Live blogging commences:
6:45 p.m.: Security-wise, the Garde has it all over Hartford’s Bushnell, where McMahon and Blumenthal debated last week. At the Bushnell, security put us through a comedy of mixed directions, baggage checks, changing rules about where reporters could and couldn’t go—and we all ended up sneaking in cameras anyway. No Secret Service wannabes tonight or freaked-out clueless ushers. Easy to get in and around. And everyone’s mellow inside. As crowds yelled and screamed outside, the Garde crew even had time to comment on the state of the American electorate.
6:50: Lieberman and Lamont held one of their debates here four years ago. Again, that one had a lot more press. Even though this race has gotten national attention and has interesting personalities (OK, personality)—Christina Amanpour did a spot this past weekend, for instance—it still hasn’t dominated national discussion the way the 2006 race did, what with the Lieberman-apostate angle (or, in the general election, the Lieberman-uber-Independent angle, depending on your point of view) and the bloggers’ darling Lamont angle, and what it was all supposed to mean for the future of American politics. Although, there is a guy from Der Spiegel sitting next to me here in the press section. A guy from National Review’s here. Otherwise, just Connecticut media as far as a I can tell, and not a swarm.
6:55: Full house.
6:56: OK, this could be the signal of McMahon’s surprise new theme: Her campaign just sent out a press missive. It accuses Blumenthal of attacking her industry even though—ready?—he once voted to “deregulate” wrestling. When? When he was a state representative. Twenty years ago.
Hmmm. Maybe this isn’t the big surprise bombshell after all… It is interesting that the campaign waited until 6:56 to send the release: Alert the media to direct spin, but hope that it’d be too late for the Blumenthal camp to prepare a response?
7:04: First question. Blumenthal is asked about the GOP Pledge to America’s call to end “this liberal Keynsian experiment.” What does he think? Answer: We have “unacceptably high unemployment.” Washington emphasizes “too much top-down bailouts” that help Wall Street, not “Main Street.” He said government can aid exports, provide more loans for business, do more job-training; offer more tax deductions for start-ups. So he is defending a government role while still trying to appeal to Republican-leaning independent who oppose “government” because of “bailouts” (which now, according to some experts, won’t end up costing any money, at least some of the financial firm and auto bailouts).
He throws in that he’d never consider cutting the minimum wage. He repeats the dubious charge that McMahon came out for considering that.
7:06: McMahon: “Government does not create jobs. People create jobs. Entrepreneurs create jobs” by taking risks. They need “certainty” so they can “plan,” certainty about what taxes and regulations will be. So she doesn’t really address Keynes, either. She throws in references to The New York Times, Connecticut Mirror (shout-out for the new online media!), etc., in noting that she never called for considering lowering the wage. In her position, how does a candidate both answer a bogus charge without keeping it alive and making it the story?
She ends with throwing out to Blumenthal: “Have you created any jobs in this country?” That’s been the Republican theme lately.
7:07: Mark Davis of WTNH agrees that McMahon never said the wage should be cut, or that it should be considered. But, he asks her, what did you mean?
Answer: I don’t want to lower it. We have to be careful about raising it. Just as we shouldn’t raise taxes.
7:09: After hearing McMahon criticize him on job creation and “tax-and-spend liberal” tendencies, Blumenthal strikes back: “My opponent would have more credibility on the subject of taxes” if “she had not taken a tax credit,” then laid off people, and “taken home $46 million.” “She would have more credibility on outsourcing if her company did not buy most of its merchandise in Pakistan and China.”
Blumenthal needs to find a response to being portrayed as a government guy who doesn’t create jobs. He has been trying to put it back on McMahon as a business person who laid off people and misused government job-creation aid.
7:13: Davis: A Hartford prof wrote a Times piece about how makes over $250,000 a year and can’t afford being taxed more. (Blumenthal and other Democrats want to let the Bush tax cuts expire for the top 2 percent of wage earners.) Davis asks Blumenthal about that. Blumenthal begins by saying he supports preserving the cuts for “the middle class” (up to 98 percent of everyone in the country). Then he notes that the top 2 percent would then pay rates they paid under President Clinton, when the country did “quite well.” This is where the country’s debate has come: Democrats and Republicans both agree on preserving the vast majority of President Bush’s tax cuts for even people making six figures.
7:15: McMahon: Letting tax cuts expire for the top 2 percent actually ends up taxing small businesses, which will then eliminate jobs for “middle-class” families. “72 percent of the revenue made by small businesses fall into that class.”
Then McMahon defends tax incentives WWE took that helped her company grow and create jobs. “As a CEO you make tough decisions sometimes.” WWE created an “average of 20 jobs a year over 28 years.” But “until you have profits, you cannot hire more people.” She keeps speaking to Blumenthal as someone who doesn’t “understand” how jobs are create.
McMahon responds to a reference he made to how he would never vote to cut social security. She has declined to address the issue on the trail (similar to how President Obama appointed a bipartisan commission to look at social security and Medicare that wouldn’t report until after the November election). “Any candidate who touches that third rail” forfeits ability to “put good ideas on the table” when in office, McMahon says.
7:19: McMahon: We pay $1 billion a day in debt service. She calls for using “unspent stimulus money” to start “paying down our debt.”
7:23: Both candidates’ campaigns are sending “fact check” press releases pretty much by the minute to respond to what their opponents are saying in the debate. This is becoming the norm in campaign debates, it seems. Seems like a fair use of new media. The danger is: Will those releases be lost in such a flood and lose impact? Or will they influence reporters when they write their stories, once they’ve decided which specific points to pursue?
7:25: Question: Blumenthal called for “Swift action” against China for currency manipulations. Does this mean tariffs? Does that create a danger of protectionism?
Blumenthal gets around to saying yes, he supports tariffs, and no, doesn’t fear protectionism: “This country must pursue fairer trade policies. I would fight as hard to make those trade policies fair as I have done when I fought utilities when they raised their rates ... big tobacco when it addicted our children.” He said he supports “sanctions that are necessary to change the way [China] values its currency.” Undervalued currency creates barriers for our exports into China. “I am not fearful of a protectionist war. The rest of the world should be on our side.”
7:29: McMahon: She agrees that China’s currency shouldn’t be tied to U.S. currency, the way 60 other countries do. She said she does have a problem with “protectionist trade policies.” She says, to build up exports, we need to look at our own policies at home, too: We need to make sure taxes on corporations here are “fair.” Our corporate taxes and energy costs are higher here than elsewhere; until we change that, we’re not going to be able to compete with exports.
7:30: A rejoinder on the outsourcing issue: McMahon asks Blumenthal, didn’t you divest yourself of investments tied to the Cayman Islands right before this campaign? Blumenthal’s response: Whatever investments I’ve had “pale” next to the outsourcing WWE has done.
7:32: Davis reads a question submitted by a “grandmother in New Haven” for McMahon—about “the terrible and disgusting degradation of women” on WWE.
McMahon: WWE’s programming has “evolved” to more family-friendly fare. “There were times when we pushed the envelope ... I am very proud” of where the company is now. Plus, she’s proud the company employs “almost 600 people.”
7:33: Blumenthal: For 20 years, “I have fought to protect children from abuse and dangers” from marketing by sleazy companies. “My opponent has not only marketed sex and violence to children. She actually paid hundreds of millions of dollars to lobby in Washington against penalties for sex and violence marketing to children.” He also brings up WWE relying on independent contractors, and on steroids. This is a main thrust of his campaign’s attack on McMahon: As an employer responsible for irresponsible, exploitative behavior that he has fought against.
7:34: Davis insists that McMahon get a chance to respond before the next question. She repeats that the rating for the network has moved from TV-14 to TV-PG. She calls it “insulting” to millions of WWE viewers that it is “less than quality entertainment.” Low laughter in crowd. However: WWE is wildly popular with many independent voters and working-class voters, including Latino voters in particular.
7:38: Trademark well-focused Mark Davis question: How can you criticize insurance companies for wanting to increase premiums if the new law—which you support—forces them to increase services.
Blumenthal: The latest round of requested rate increases, of 20 to 50 percent, is in no way tied to the health law. A nonpartisan study says that cost rises associated with the law are no more than 2 percent.
7:40: Blumenthal raises the “death clause” in WWE contracts, holding the company harmless if wrestlers die due to the job, which has happened.
McMahon first addresses the rate-increase question: The new law adds people to the health care rolls. It adds mandates. So it “stands to reason” that premiums go up. (She doesn’t address his point that studies show that increase is much lower than predicted.) McMahon returns to the theme that Blumenthal doesn’t understand business reality.
Blumenthal returns the focus to patients, not employers. He speaks of the many people who “come to my office” because insurance companies have denied them coverage for cancer treatment or baby formula because of a preexisting condition or a switch in their health plans. “Those abusive excuses are not expensive for health insurance companies to stop.”
7:47: Next question: Republicans have blocked legislation to reveal who gives money to “nonprofits” currently pouring millions into races this year. Those nonprofits are believed to be heavily favor Republicans and enable business interests to disguise their role.
McMahon brings up that unions sometimes are able to hide their roles in supporting candidates, too. She also talks about the recent Supreme Court decision upholding corporate free speech rights enjoyed by other “individuals.” “I’ve funded my campaign myself with money that I’ve earned.” No PAC money. No “special interest” money. This is crucial: Blumenthal attacks her for “buying” an election with $40 to $50 million of her own money. She turns it around to trumpet her independence from special interests.
Blumenthal: Supports “full disclosure” about who gives money to campaigns, so we can tell which special interests seek to “buy power in Washington.” He, unlike McMahon, decries that Supreme Court decision (in Citizens United) for “unleashing a flood of special interest money.” Now he responds to McMahon’s independence argument: He says his record shows he’ll fight “special interests” like utilities and tobacco companies.
7:50: McMahon response: “I’m just confused, Mr. Blumenthal, why you are taking special interest money to fund your campaign.”
Blumenthal: “The people of Connecticut know me.” Laughter, presumably from McMahon supporters. He speaks of “battles” he’s taken on against special interests “while you have built your fortune putting profits first.” Now the crowd is getting less controlled, booing him.
7:52: Question: How deal with global warming? Blumenthal’s answer: Cut utility costs. Create green jobs. “Cap and trade is dead. It died in the last Congress. I supported the cap and trade concept” but wanted to “change it” to “make it better.” I “oppose a national energy tax.” Why he’s saying that: McMahon and other Republicans have defined cap and trade—which allows corporations to trade pollution credits in order to lower overall carbon emissions—as a “tax.”
7:53: McMahon picks up Blumenthal’s comment about how “the people of Connecticut know you.” She says they know he lies. She brings up the Vietnam issue again.
7:54: Blumenthal shoots back: “I will not be lectured on straight talk by a woman who has failed to be straight with the people of Connecticut on the issues of minimum wage and social security.” WTNH’s Ann Nyberg is having trouble keeping candidates to the time limits, and the crowd quiet.
7:55: Now it’s final remarks, repeating themes that have been repeated through the race.
McMahon: Blumenthal’s a “lifelong politician” looking to “grow government” and raise taxes; she’s a job-creating businesswoman who wants to create jobs and lower taxes. It’s striking that she then, in these remarks, talks about the generic “mother” and “veteran” who needs help, without names. Blumenthal usually names people he has helped, specifically.
Blumenthal: “I have devoted myself to helping people through public service.” Now he’s naming the people he’s helped, like “Billy Clark” and his fellow Pratt & Whitney workers whose jobs were going to be shipped abroad “illegally.” Meanwhile, the theme goes, McMahon has a record of mistreating workers and “putting profits before people.”
7:58: Debate’s over. We’ll be back in about an hour or so with post-debate reports.
8:33: Republican Rob Simmons is up here in the press room to spin for McMahon—but no McMahon! Blumenthal stops by to spin with reporters. He’s relaxed; he get softball questions. McMahon, who showed up to answer questions after the Bushnell debate, is nowhere to be found. She fled. Is that because her handlers felt that last session went off track? Or because they didn’t feel she did well tonight? Either way, from here on in, it’s all scripted campaigning, all the time…