Senator Edward J. Markey and his Republican challenger, attorney Kevin O’Connor, faced off in their only debate of the general election Monday night, each accusing the other of being a partisan extremist as they tangled over mask-wearing, health care, environmental policy, and President Trump’s pending nominee to the US Supreme Court.
It was a weird and winding televised debate, with the candidates speaking from separate studios, a last-minute change made by host GBH News, it said, “to ensure the greatest individual comfort and safety of everyone involved.”
Markey steadily sought to tie his opponent to Trump and paint him as a surefire vote for Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.
“You’re a Donald Trump Republican. When you don’t wear a mask yourself in public . . . when you’re not willing to talk about the magnitude of the climate threat to our planet, and what the solution should be, you know you’re a Trump Republican," Markey charged.
O’Connor knocked the 74-year-old incumbent as at the far left fringe of the Democratic Party who would “defund our police, pack our Supreme Court . . . get rid of the filibuster,” and end private health insurance.
At times, O’Connor — who had never run for office before winning the Republican primary last month — expressed moderate positions.
He broke with Trump on several big policy issues, declaring, for instance, that “I absolutely agree that climate change is real." He vowed to be “a pro-environment senator,” if elected.
O’Connor argued, however, that Markey’s signature policy proposal — the Green New Deal to combat climate change and revamp the US economy — would hurt American workers.
“Senator’s Markey’s Green New Deal, that extreme program, is nothing but posturing,” he said. He said he did not believe the United States could function without fossil fuels.
On other topics, he sounded more in lockstep with the president, who is deeply unpopular in Massachusetts. During one stretch early on in the debate, O’Connor repeatedly hammered Markey for failing to hold China accountable for its role in the coronavirus pandemic.
“Senator Markey has a long record of weakness in terms of dealing with China,” he said.
The Senate debate, which coincided with the Patriots-Chiefs game, also unfolded against a backdrop of the president returning to the White House after being hospitalized with COVID-19, part of a truly overwhelming news cycle that could make it hard for the Senate race to resonate with many Massachusetts voters.
O’Connor has certainly struggled to gain traction. Markey hasn’t made it easy, either, agreeing to just the one debate. O’Connor had pushed for seven debates.
In 2018, Senator Elizabeth Warren agreed to three debates with her GOP challenger, Geoff Diehl, who faced similarly long odds of winning.
Markey told reporters after the debate that the single forum provided ample of opportunity for voters to hear “almost all the key issues that divide us," and suggested that little would be gained from further discussion.
"The bottom line is, he’s clearly a big Trump supporter, and I clearly am a big Biden supporter, and all of the issues for the most part subdivide along those lines.”
O’Connor, who lives in Dover, tried to walk a careful line of expressing support for Trump while also arguing that he would be an independent voice. To bolster that case, O’Connor more than once reminded viewers that the state’s popular moderate Republican governor, Charlie Baker, has endorsed him, not Markey.
“For all Senator Markey wants to run against President Trump, I am running as a Kevin O’Connor Republican,” said O’Connor, who on the trail calls himself a “common-sense candidate" and vowed to work with “anyone and everyone” on key policy issues such as immigration.
Yet over and over, Markey highlighted the bigger balance-of-power concern at play in this and every Senate race around the country this cycle: Whether Republicans keep control of the Senate, which would enable McConnell to continue to block progressive legislation.
“The last thing we need in Massachusetts is to send another Republican down to help Mitch McConnell stop a green energy revolution, stop the expansion of health care benefits in our country, to stop ensuring that we have real criminal justice reform,” Markey said.
At a few points, O’Connor seemed to take a page from the playbook used by Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, the Democrat who attempted unsuccessfully to defeat Markey in the Democratic primary.
O’Connor tried to paint Markey as a creature of Washington who hasn’t accomplished much in his more than four decades in Congress. When the topic turned to racism, O’Connor brought up the family of DJ Henry, a young Black college student shot by a police officer in upstate New York 10 years ago. DJ’s father, Danroy Henry Sr., went public during the primary with a story of how he and his wife felt dismissed by Markey when they sought his help getting justice for their son.
The debate made clear stark differences between the candidates, including on the issue of abortion.
Markey said he supports the Massachusetts Legislature passing legislation aimed at expanding access to abortion, known as the ROE Act.
“We have to be the leader in ensuring that we are going to put on the books protections for women, so that the only decision is between a woman and her physician,” said Markey.
O’Connor said that position placed Markey “within the most extreme group in terms of advocating abortion rights, even at the point of delivery, ninth month. . . . It’s terrible the things that he’s advocated for.”
Throughout the campaign, O’Connor has seized on comments Markey has made about wanting to “disarm” police of weapons of war. The Republican charges that his Democratic opponent wants to defund the police.
Markey, of Malden, during the primary stopped short of embracing the “defund” language used by some criminal justice advocates, though he did express support for reducing police funding.
A father of four and graduate of Boston College Law School, the 58-year-old O’Connor faces numerous challenges in reliably Democratic Massachusetts, the biggest of all being Trump, who is also on the ballot Nov. 3.
“No Republican is competitive as a federal candidate in Massachusetts this cycle," said Brian Jencunas, a Massachusetts-based political strategist. “This is a blue state and Donald Trump’s brand has been toxic for every Republican who isn’t named Charlie Baker.”