Val Demings spars with Marco Rubio in Florida's Senate debate
Composite image of Marco Rubio and Val Demings / screengrab of WFLA debate

Incumbent GOP Sen. Marco Rubio sparred on stage Tuesday night with Democrat Val Demings in the only scheduled televised debate before the general election in less than a month.

Both candidates for the U.S. Senate in Florida went back and forth on a variety of issues from gun violence, abortion, voting rights and more – oftentimes interrupting one another and engaging in some heated exchanges.

Rubio, a Republican and former Florida House Speaker, is seeking a third term in the Senate and has gotten support from law enforcement groups across the state. Demings, a former police chief, had accepted invitations to three contests but Rubio agreed only to Tuesday’s debate.

Here are some of the major issues during the debate Tuesday evening:

Reproductive rights

Abortion took center stage during the one-hour debate at the Palm Beach State College Lake Worth campus. Demings, a former Orlando police chief, accused her opponent of lying about his stance on abortion but Rubio defended his record.

“I am 100 percent pro-life,” Rubio said, adding that he’s favored legislation with exceptions for rape and incest.

Rubio has defended his co-sponsorship of Republican legislation to impose a federal ban on abortions after 15 weeks’ gestation with exceptions for rape and incest.

“I have shown a willingness to work with people to save unborn, innocent human life,” he said. “She (Demings) opposes any limitation of any kind.”

Unlike Florida’s 15-week ban on the medical procedure, the 15 weeks’ abortion bill being discussed in Congress would allow exceptions for rape, incest, or “in cases of risk of death or major injury to the mother.”

Rubio said: “I am being attacked on a bill that has exceptions. My name is on that bill.”

Rubio is on record in support of a total ban on abortion from the moment of conception, with no exceptions for rape or incest, but has wiggled somewhat on the issue.

Demings said Rubio is lying about his stance on abortion, arguing that he has been against the exceptions.

“Senator how gullible do you really think Florida voters are?” she said. “You have been clear that you support no exceptions, even including rape and incest. Now as a police detective who investigated cases of rape and incest, no senator, I don’t think it’s okay!” she said.

In response to Rubio’s claim that Demings opposes any limitation on abortions, she said: “I support a woman’s right to choose up to the time of viability.”

Climate change

Demings pointed to climate change when asked about Hurricane Ian and addressing federal policies to protect Floridians from projected sea level rise. The massive storm wreaked havoc last month on Southwest Florida, making landfall as a category 4 hurricane.

“I grew up in Florida so I know all too well the devastating effects that hurricanes can cause on our state,” Demings said. “And number one, we have got to get serious about climate change. Climate change is real. If we don’t do something about it then we are going to pay a terrible price for it – more intense storms, more flooding.”

Rubio had a different stance on addressing the issue, without mentioning climate change. He said his plan would involve two phases: boosting emergency response and long-term recovery efforts. “These communities immediately need emergency relief,” Rubio said.

“What’s happening for a lot of these cities and counties is they have to spend a lot of money upfront, money out of their budgets they have to spend right now to pay for these things,” Rubio added.

Guns

Rubio said he doesn’t think a federal ban on the sale of AR-style rifles is the solution to address gun violence. He said a lot of people own rifles but don’t commit gun crimes.

“Denying the right to buy it is not going to keep them from doing it,” Rubio said. “A lot of people own AR-15’s and they don’t kill everyone – the majority of the people don’t.”

Rubio pointed to his support for red flag laws, “that will allow the police department to go before a judge and your guns if they can prove that you are a danger.”

In an emotional rebuttal, Demings slammed Rubio for his response to gun violence, saying he hasn’t done anything to address it in Florida. “Victims of gun violence just heard that and they are asking themselves ‘what in the hell did he just say?”

“Our primary responsibility is the safety of Floridians,” she said. “And senator, 24 years in elected office, and you have not yet risen to that occasion, and then when asked about it you say something that makes no sense!”

Immigration reform

Rubio criticized President Joe Biden and national Democrats for failing to secure the U.S. border, an issue backed by many Republicans that argue against the federal government’s response to migrants seeking a better life in the United States.

Rubio said millions of illegal immigrants have “entered our country since Joe Biden took over as president.”

“There’s no country in the world, that can tolerate or permit, or afford, 5,000 people a day arriving at your border saying the magic words and getting asylum.”

“This cannot continue, it has to be fixed,” he said.

Demings said she supports securing the U.S. border by boosting personnel and resources.

“We need to make sure that the women and men at the borders have the resources that they need,” she said. “I am a fan of boots on the ground. Let’s have more boots on the ground but let’s also hire more processors so that we can separate those who need to be arrested from those who are seeking asylum.”

Inflation and the economy

When asked about inflation and the economy, Rubio highlighted the Paycheck Protection Plan passed in Congress during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The paycheck protection program was a bipartisan victory,” he said.

“We saved millions of small businesses. I am incredibly proud of it,” he said. “I’m proud of the fact that we saved millions of jobs.”

Demings touted the American Rescue Plan, pushed by many Democrats in Congress.

“No one planned the pandemic but our response to it is everything,” Demings said. “And individuals were hurting, families were hurting, businesses were hurting.”

Polls and campaign dollars

As for polls, Rubio has a 5-point advantage over Demings based on an average of recent polls, according to data from to Real Clear Politics.

And Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight forecast shows Democrats are “slightly favored to win the Senate,” but in the Florida race, the chance of winning shows Rubio would likely be the winner.

However, Demings has been raising more money in Florida’s U.S. Senate race, according to campaign finance records from the Federal Election Commission — about $64.6 million from January of 2021 to September. Rubio has raised about $35.2 million in that same time period.

And for money spent on their respective campaigns, Demings has spent $59.7 million, while Rubio has spent $30.5 million. Data show that Rubio has more “ending cash on hand,” with $9.6 million, compared to Demings’ $6.4 million.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.