NEEDHAM — Well behind in the polls, Republican Geoff Diehl repeatedly attacked Democrat Maura Healey’s record on energy issues in their second and final televised debate Thursday, seizing on the potential for a winter of costly heating bills in a bid to dent her promise to protect taxpayers if elected governor.
Healey and Diehl sparred at several points over the attorney general’s boast that she blocked plans for two major gas pipeline projects in Massachusetts, with Diehl framing it as a precursor to why energy costs could spike this winter while Healey said her opposition helped protect ratepayers from having to foot the bill for their construction.
The back and forth underscored the candidates’ continual jockeying about who’s best suited to make good on their vows to cut costs and taxes on Beacon Hill.
Looming above the race are gathering economic storm clouds. A Suffolk University poll released this week found voters’ perception of the economy has dropped from just one month ago, with more than half of likely voters polled saying they were concerned about their personal financial situation.
Healey, a South End Democrat, has fashioned herself as intensely focused on addressing affordability issues, and threw her support behind a tax relief package pushed by Governor Charlie Baker, the Republican incumbent who’s not seeking reelection.
“Cutting taxes,” she responded when asked how she would help ease economic pain. “Cutting taxes.”
Diehl, a Donald Trump-backed former state lawmaker, dismissed Healey’s promise to cut taxes, noting that she supports a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents, which he opposes.
Healey, however, did not commit to opposing tax hikes should she take office. Asked if either would under any circumstance support raising them, Diehl said he wouldn’t “anticipate ever raising taxes.”
“We’re overtaxing people,” he said.
Healey was more circumspect, saying she is not “going to commit to particular pledges.”
“The economic health and well-being of this state is absolutely the priority and the responsibility of the governor,” she said.
But throughout the debate, hosted by WCVB-Channel 5 in partnership with the Boston Globe, WBUR, and Univision, it was energy costs that dominated the discussion, many times at Diehl’s insistence.
Healey at a forum in April boasted of blocking pipeline projects, one from Kinder Morgan and another known as Access Northeast pushed by Eversource and National Grid, the two biggest utilities in the state.
While Healey publicly opposed the pipelines, her office did not unilaterally block the projects. Kinder Morgan said it shelved its project in 2016 after failing to sign up enough utility customers, and Access Northeast stalled a year later after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down the Baker administration’s plan to have electricity ratepayers pick up the tab for the pipeline expansion.
During the debate, Diehl charged that she’s part of a “war on fossil fuels,” and that her opposition to new pipeline infrastructure is contributing to an “energy crunch, right now.”
“There is a war in Russia and Ukraine,” Healey shot back at one point. “That is not Massachusetts’ fault.”
Healey said she supports Baker’s decision to join other governors in asking the federal government for emergency funds to help combat costs. When Diehl accused her of asking for a “bailout,” Healey scoffed when asked for a reply.
“Some of it is just ridiculous,” she said.
Thursday’s forum marked one of the last, and most high-profile, platforms for Diehl to make up ground on Healey ahead of Election Day. She entered with leads stretching from 23 to 30 percentage points in recent public polling, and while Healey has polled ahead of Diehl among virtually every group outside of Republicans, she holds an enormous edge among women voters, including those who identify as independent voters.
The electorate also appears to both be settling on its preference — just 6 percent of those polled in a recent Suffolk University survey were undecided — and actively voting, with more than 151,000 voters having already returned ballots as of Thursday afternoon. Early in-person voting also begins on Saturday, further narrowing the window for candidates to make their final appeals.
Diehl broached some new ground Thursday, throwing out ideas that go beyond his usual talking points.
He suggested that tax revenues from cannabis sales could help alleviate the cost of property taxes for municipal buildings like police and fire stations.
Later, when asked how he would fix the dysfunction at the MBTA, Diehl posited that the Massachusetts Port Authority, which among other responsibilities operates Logan Airport, could take control of the troubled quasi-public agency.
”They are a cash cow when it comes to revenue and transport,” Diehl said of Massport. “Why not have them potentially look at the MBTA as an added component?”
Much of the debate, however, treaded on familiar ground, both from their first televised matchup and the campaign trail.
Healey accused Diehl, a self-described “pro-life” conservative, as threatening abortion access for Massachusetts women, charging he wants to “jail doctors who provide abortion care.”
“My opponent’s record and his actions on this issue could not be more clear,” Healey said. “He does not support a women’s access to abortion.”
Diehl argued that as governor he would have little power to change abortion laws, given the Democratic supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature.
“I know it’s Halloween,” Diehl responded. “Stop scaring people about abortion.”
Both candidates said they would “absolutely” accept the results of the Nov. 8 election. A spokesperson for Diehl has previously said that Diehl would accept the results of the race, but that if he sees problems with the voting process, he will call them out and “seek resolution” through legal means.
“It’s OK to question elections,” Diehl said.
Healey has accused Diehl of wanting to usher “Trumpism” into Massachusetts, and cast him Thursday as an election denier. Diehl has oscillated on whether the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, including saying in an August interview with conservative radio host Jeff Kuhner that “it definitely was an election that was stolen from Trump, and it was rigged in a way that should never happen again.”
In their first debate, and again Thursday, Diehl toned down his rhetoric.
“I accepted the results of the 2020 election,” he said. “Of course, Joe Biden is our president.”
The forum, at times, had a helter-skelter feel. Diehl, in laying out his opposition to the ballot measure raising taxes on annual income above $1 million, claimed the revenue from it “can’t be earmarked like they’re saying, for education and transportation.”
The money would be constitutionally guaranteed to go to those areas; however, lawmakers would retain discretion over whether it’s truly additive.
At another point, Healey and Diehl sparred over how best to make college affordable, with Diehl saying it requires “more of a free-market principle.”
When Healey criticized him as supporting the privatization of higher education, Diehl shot back that he was “surprised you’re not a fan of private colleges,” given she’s a product of them. (Healey attended Harvard College and Northeastern University School of Law. Diehl graduated from Lehigh University.)
“Yes, I went to a private college. You went to private college,” she said.
This week also marked a new push for Diehl who, after more than 15 months of campaigning, will reportedly soon start airing his first television ad. He also announced his cash-strapped campaign is launching a two-day “Take Freedom Back” tour of Eastern and Central Massachusetts this weekend, which culminates in a Tuesday rally at Faneuil Hall in Boston.
A little-known Libertarian candidate, Kevin Reed, will share the ballot with Healey and Diehl.