Sen. Elizabeth Warren and her challenger, Republican state Rep. Geoff Diehl, faced off in their first debate Friday night. And with a few exceptions, there wasn’t a ton of agreement.
WBZ moderator Jon Keller allowed the two candidates to address — and sometimes challenge — each other over issues from the Republican tax cut bill to immigration policy to government reform. With less than three weeks until the Nov. 6 election, it was the first face-to-face meeting between Warren, a Cambridge Democrat running for her second term in the U.S. Senate, and Diehl, a Whitman Republican who chaired President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign in Massachusetts.
Here were the most heated exchanges:
What was the debate really about?
Both candidates said they were running to serve the people of Massachusetts, while casting aspersions on their opponent. Warren used Diehl’s own words from an April fundraiser against him, saying he would “have [Trump’s] back 100 percent.” In return, Diehl hit Warren for saying she would consider a presidential run after the election and seemingly laying the seeds for such a campaign.
“You’re going to hear a lot about Donald Trump in this debate, because Senator Warren clearly wants to run against him in the 2020 elections,” he said.
Diehl noted that he opposed the state and local tax deduction repeal aspect of the Republican tax bill, even though he generally supported the legislation. So Warren challenged him to take back his words about having Trump’s back.
“Let’s talk about, if we’re going to talk about character, what it means to have Donald Trump’s back,” she said. “It means, of course, being the vote to roll back health care for tens of millions of Americans. It means a trillion-and-a-half-dollar tax giveaway, and paid for, the Republicans say, by cutting Social Security and Medicare. It means standing by Donald Trump when he calls white supremacists in Charlottesville ‘fine people.'”
Diehl said the Republican tax bill was benefiting Massachusetts, citing the state’s decades-low unemployment rate. Warren said the tax cuts disproportionately benefited “billionaires and giant corporations” and that the Republican-controlled Congress wasn’t “working for the rest of America.” Diehl responded that it was Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, who most recently suggested cutting “entitlements” to pay down the national debt.
“I am not a Mitch McConnell Republican,” he said. “I am a Massachusetts Republican that has worked with Democrats and Republicans.”
Warren interjected, asking when exactly Diehl had opposed the McConnell-led tax cuts.
“I think I’m doing it right now,” he said.
“Oh, you waited until tonight?” Warren retorted.
Diehl said that 80 percent of Massachusetts residents were paying lower federal taxes due to the tax cut bill. But Warren called it a “Republican scam,” in which working class people would end up paying for the tax breaks in the form of cuts to social services.
How to respond to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi
Shifting to foreign policy, Keller asked the two candidates about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey. Warren called Khashoggi’s death an “attack on democracy” by the Saudi Arabian government and questioned why Trump hadn’t forcefully condemned their actions, suggesting that the president’s business dealings with the country were a conflict of interest.
— WBZ | CBS Boston News (@wbz) October 20, 2018
Diehl agreed that it was important to protect the freedom of the press around the world, but noted that Saudi Arabia has been an important regional ally in the Middle East and that there were businesses in Massachusetts, like Raytheon and General Dynamics, that benefit from defense contracts with the country.
“I think that we need to make sure that our allies over there are supported by us, but at the same time hold them accountable when atrocities like this happen,” he said.
"We've got to protect freedom of the press around the world." – @DiehlForSenate in response to the news of the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist #WBZdebate #mapoli pic.twitter.com/EENteUXC8d
— WBZ | CBS Boston News (@wbz) October 20, 2018
Warren didn’t mince words in her rebuttal.
“I think we just heard what it means to have Donald Trump’s back 100 percent of the time,” she said. “He gives a limp response when someone from the press has been brutally murdered, and Geoff Diehl’s there to help him out.”
With Diehl repeatedly criticizing Warren on tax deductions she and her husband made in the past, the conversation then pivoted to tax returns. Warren questioned why Diehl hadn’t released any tax returns, as she has. Diehl said he wasn’t running for president, suggesting that was her reason for releasing them.
“You are running for president,” he said. “Everybody knows now at this point. It’s not a secret at all.”
Warren replied that she has worked hard to serve Massachusetts and listed a number of accomplishments on which she delivered for Bay Staters, from student loan forgiveness to infrastructure projects around the state to expanded funding for the National Institutes of Health, which the senator said disproportionately affects the state.
Yes or no on Question 3
In one particularly intense exchange, the two candidates were asked to explain their positions on Question 3, the referendum on the state’s 2016 law prohibiting discrimination against transgender people in places of public accommodation and ensuring that people can use the restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.
Diehl went first, suggesting that he would vote in favor of repealing the law. The Republican candidate said he felt the state already had adequate anti-discrimination laws to “cover everybody,” and that the public accommodations law had a “loophole” that could allow sexual predators to take advantage of it. He noted that the law includes criminal penalties for people who try to block others from using facilities according to their gender identity (though Diehl did not mention that it explicitly does not protect anyone asserting a gender identity for an “improper purpose”).
“I felt that protections in the law — anti-discrimination protections — were already in place and this does not protect a certain portion of our community,” he said.
— AndreaWBZ (@AndreaWBZ) October 20, 2018
Shooting Diehl a harsh glance, Warren affirmatively stated that she would vote to keep the law in place.
“I will vote ‘Yes on 3’ to continue to protect people against discrimination, and I think it’s really disgusting not to. Not only does Mr. Diehl have Donald Trump’s back 100 percent of the time, evidently he has Vice President [Mike] Pence’s back 100 percent of the time,” she said, alluding to the vice president and former Indiana governor’s socially conservative record.
Warren added that there was no evidence that the law threatens public safety, as one study recently found. But Diehl maintained that he had concerns about it being exploited.
“This law provides a loophole that someone who is a sexual predator could go into a space, a locker room, and claim that day they identify a different way and disrobe in front of someone of the opposite sex,” he said.
Warren called his “made-up stories” an “ugly smear.”
“This is just ugly,” she said. “Donald Trump is ugly on this topic. The vice president is ugly on this topic. And Geoff Diehl is ugly on this topic.”