Nearly half of Massachusetts voters have already cast their ballots in the 2020 Election. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t time for one last debate.
Democrat Jake Auchincloss and Republican Julie Hall faced off from a distance Friday in the only televised debate of their race to represent the 4th District in Congress and replace the departing Rep. Joe Kennedy III.
With just days until the Nov. 3 election, the half-hour debate hosted by WPRI shed light on a surprising number of areas where the two candidates — fellow military veterans who became city councilors — verged on agreement.
The debate also yielded several sharp contrasts and exchanges. Here are three takeaways from the event:
1. Hall hesitated on getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
The debate naturally began with a discussion about the coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted all sectors of public life. Hall said Friday that she won’t be first in line for a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I would not,” the 62-year-old former Attleboro city councilor and Air Force colonel responded when asked if she would receive a vaccine once it was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“I don’t take the influenza vaccine,” Hall said. “I believe that our bodies — if you have a nice healthy body — you should be able to build up antibodies. I’d rather do it that way.”
Hall, who worked as a health care administrator and a medical chief operating officer in the Air Force, noted that “there are people that really need to take this vaccine.” But she reiterated that she would wait to see whether it’s “proven.”
“This is what I would call a super flu,” Hall said. “This is a very dangerous flu, it really is. But it is still a virus, and viruses, that’s what they do. They come in our bodies, and our bodies are made to fight against those. We’re having a very difficult time doing that. But our bodies are made to fight against those best we can.”
“A quarter of a million Americans’ bodies were not made to fight against it, and they’re dead now,” Auchincloss, a 32-year-old Newton city councilor, shot back.
“Frankly, I find it very concerning that my opponent appears to be an anti-vaxxer and appears to not take science seriously,” he said. “Vaccine development and distribution is how we’re going to get safely to the other side of this pandemic.”
Health experts, such as the World Health Organization, generally recommend vaccinations for everyone over the age of six months, unless they have an allergy or a condition affecting their immune system.
Asked whether there should be a COVID-19 vaccine for school students, Auchincloss said it was a subject that needed “further research.” Hall said she opposed such a requirement.
2. Hall strayed from her party line.
Massachusetts hasn’t sent a Republican to Congress this century. And the 4th District, which stretches from Boston’s suburbs to the state’s southeastern region along the Rhode Island border, hasn’t voted Republican since President Harry Truman was in office.
Needless to say, Hall faces an uphill climb in a district where conservative pockets are outweighed by Democratic strongholds.
While she stands by her support for Trump, the Republican candidate highlighted several areas where she diverges from her party’s line: Hall said she supports the federal legalization of marijuana, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants temporary legal status to immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children, and a land rights bill that allows the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to build a casino in Taunton. (Auchincloss also said he supports federal marijuana legalization, DACA, and the land rights bill — in line with most members of the Democratic party.)
Hall also said Friday that she disagrees with the 2016 decision by Senate Republicans to not hold hearings for Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee at the time, because it was an election year — a precedent they ignored earlier this week in confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
“I’m probably going against by my party’s viewpoint here, but that’s OK because I do have a thought process on my own,” she said of the decision to block Garland’s nomination.
Hall even said she’d give Kennedy an A grade for his four terms in Congress, as did Auchincloss, who admitted he was “surprised to hear” his opponent’s assessment.
3. Disagreements on ‘character’ and the court.
Those agreements did give way, however, to more fundamental disagreements.
Auchincloss expressed openness to several structural democratic reforms, such as abolishing the Electoral College, reforming the Supreme Court, and Question 2, the ballot question to implement ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts.
Hall opposed all three proposals.
Hall also said she expressed support for overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision guaranteeing the right to an abortion in all 50 states, though she initially downplayed its chances of coming before the court.
“If it does come up, then I would choose that it would go back to the states,” Hall said.
Auchincloss disagreed, arguing that the new 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court would put Roe v. Wade “in jeopardy” and that Congress should pass legislation protecting reproductive rights.
“Women in Mississippi and Arkansas and Texas are not going to do well under a state’s rights approach,” he said. “Right now, they’re already being blocked in having access to safe and legal abortions. We need to take this to the national level.”
Auchincloss, who was briefly a Republican and worked for Gov. Charlie Baker’s campaign in 2014, won the Democratic nomination last month despite facing intense scrutiny over his past positions and statements from his more progressive opponents in the packed primary field. During the debate Friday, he again framed himself as an “Obama Baker” voter and said progressives will find him to be someone “represents their values and fights for their priorities” in Congress.
“Talking about left, center, right, is not actually addressing what voters in this district care about,” he said. “What voters in this district care about is getting through the COVID pandemic and being able to safely reopen our economy, and that requires bringing people together of all persuasions. My style as a military officer, that’s been my style in business, in local politics — get people in a room together and solve problems together.”
Hall tried to use Auchincloss’s political past against him, arguing that he changed his “entire ideological ideas” in a short timeframe.
“I hear this every time I go out: that people are going across ballot for me because they don’t trust him,” Hall said.
“I think character is extremely important when you’re going to vote for somebody,” she added. “I don’t have to have all the answers all the time. I have the capacity to get those answers, which I do. I’m a colonel in the United States Air Force. I did very, very well.”
Auchincloss said that, despite changing his party registration, he’d been consistent on his priorities — addressing inequality, transitioning the economy toward clean energy, and passing universal background checks for gun purchases.
“I find it disconcerting that someone could support Donald Trump for president while espousing truth and character as important principles,” he said.
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