A pair of Florida congressmen, who believe their parties’ voters will choose them to square off this fall for an open U.S. Senate seat, offered few surprises in responding to publicly posed questions during a debate Monday night.
U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, an Orlando Democrat, and U.S. Rep. David Jolly, an Indian Shores Republican, amicably debated for nearly 75 minutes during the live-streamed Open Debate Coalition event held at the University of Central Florida.
Jolly mentioned several times his “Stop Act” legislation, which would prohibit members of Congress from directly asking for campaign donations — a move that he argues would be a step to reform campaign financing. Jolly also said the federal minimum wage should be based on an index as is done in Florida but not an arbitrary $15 an hour; that life begins at conception; and that people now entering the work force should expect to see changes to Society Security.
Jolly also diverted from many GOP leaders by saying the Senate should give Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, a hearing before rejecting the appointment.
“Rejecting the nominee because he is wrong on the Second Amendment and wrong on labor unions is not obstructionism,” Jolly said. “If they bring it up for a vote, vote him down. Ask the president to nominate a second person, one that could actually meet approval of Republicans in the United States Senate.”
Grayson, a progressive firebrand who repeatedly mentioned legislation he’s filed, favored breaking up big banks; supported a hike in the national minimum wage; backed abortion rights; and supported increasing Social Security benefits for seniors.
Grayson said if a Democrat wins the White House this fall and Garland is still awaiting a Senate hearing, he would suggest the president withdraw the nomination. But Grayson also used the nomination to make the kind of argument that has led to support from progressive voters.
“Under the original Constitution, African-Americans were considered to be three-fifths of a human being,” Grayson said. “We’ve moved beyond that point, (but) now our first African-American president only gets seven-eighths of a term.”
Questions for the Open Debate Coalition event touched on campaign-finance reform, the future of Social Security, the expansion of solar power in Florida, funding for Planned Parenthood, increasing the minimum wage, student debt and the future of for-profit prisons.
The questions were filtered by moderators from the most popular of the more than 900 submitted on the Open Debate Coalition website.
Actor Mark Ruffalo introduced a question via a taped video asking about supporting climate-change legislation.
Grayson quickly agreed with the question, which also asked if climate change is the “single greatest threat” to the world.
“I can’t think of anything else that could literally destroy the planet. … We’re playing dice with the planet Earth that is very disturbing to me,” Grayson said.
Jolly responded that while he’s willing to debate solutions to climate change, the nation’s biggest threats are terrorism and a nuclear Iran.
“The greatest threat we face as a nation are people who wish to destroy us tomorrow,” Jolly said.
In advance of the event, the two declared themselves the “front-runners” — despite polls not agreeing with such an assertion — and expressed a hope to spur a series of such “open debates” in the manner of the verbal clashes between U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln during the 1858 Illinois elections.
Monday’s event gave both candidates a chance to showcase politically divergent views without having to narrow their stances as they might during partisan debates before the August primaries.
But critics, including Senate candidates not invited, said they didn’t see much difference between the candidates.
The campaign for U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Ponte Vedra Beach Republican, criticized the event as a “Democratic party debate.”
“David Jolly repeatedly finds himself voting with Grayson on spending, religious freedom, and protecting IRS bureaucrats, so it’s no wonder he’s chosen to put himself before the Democrat party’s voters as their potential nominee for Senate,” DeSantis campaign manager Brad Herold said in a release prior to the debate.
The event was announced as being open to candidates who averaged 15 percent or more in select public polling.
U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Jupiter Democrat, declined to attend, while the host of the event didn’t deem any of Jolly’s Republican opponents — DeSantis, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Orlando businessman Todd Wilcox and Bradenton developer Carlos Beruff — as meeting the qualifying threshold.
The Florida race is expected to be one of the more-important in the country, as Democrats try to win back control of the Senate from Republicans.
Incumbent Republican Marco Rubio decided against seeking a second term, opening up the seat. But several early polls have indicated that voters know relatively little about the candidates in both parties.