But, predictably, the issue that struck one of the earliest fights between the two was abortion, a topic that Democrats have highlighted in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision this year to overturn abortion protections codified in Roe v. wade.
“Senator, how gullible do you think Florida voters are?” Demings asked, after Rubio accused her of supporting abortion until the “moment of life.”
Rubio pushed back on Demings’ accusation that he doesn’t support any exemptions to abortion laws, raising his co-sponsorship of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (RS.C) federal proposal to prohibit abortions after 15 weeks but includes exceptions for victims who become pregnant through rape or incest.
“The extremist on abortion in this campaign is Congresswoman Demings. She supports no restrictions, no limitations of any kind,” Rubio said. “She supports taxpayer-funded abortion … up until the moment of birth.”
The Rubio-Demings Florida Senate race early on appeared as if it could be one of the most consequential contests in determining control of the upper chamber. But with just a few weeks before the November election, it has taken a back seat to competitive Senate contests in Pennsylvania and Georgia and hasn’t received top billing even in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis’ re-election bid has gotten much more attention.
Demings, a 65-year-old Black former Orlando Police Chief who was once being considered as President Joe Biden’s running mate, is viewed as a rising star in Florida and national Democratic circles. While she’s raised huge sums of campaign cash, national groups have all but abandoned her. The race has already surpassed the $100 million mark.
Rubio, 51, a two-term senator who ran for president in 2016, has consistently outpolled Demings by roughly 5 points in a once perennial swing state that is now leaning Republican.
During the hour-long debate, the moderator also asked the candidates about climate change as the state continues to recover from Hurricane Ian, a near Category 5 storm that decimated much of Southwest Florida in late September, killing at least 119 people and racking up a projected $50-plus billion in insured losses — an amount that would make it the most expensive storm in state history.
“We have got to get serious about climate change, climate change is real,” Demings said. “If we don’t do something about it, we are going to pay a terrible price.”
She added that enough resources to “adequately respond” need to be provided to the Federal Emergency Management Agency while Rubio said FEMA reimbursements to local governments devastated by natural disasters like hurricanes need to be dispersed quicker.
“What is happening for a lot of these cities and counties is, they have to spend a lot of money on the front end, money out of their budgets,” he said.
The two also argued over immigration, an issue that has come to the forefront in Florida after DeSantis flew almost 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in September and the immigration dilemma at the southern border keeps growing. Rubio claimed Demings disrespects US Customs and Border Protection agents, a comment that sparked immediate pushback from Demings, who accused the Republican of saying “anything to win.”
“We are a nation of laws. I enforced them for more than 20 years,” Demings said. “We need to make sure men and women at the border have the resources they need. I am a fan of boots on the ground.”
Rubio, though, said the situation at the border is simply not sustainable.
“There is no country in the world that can tolerate, permit or afford 5,000 people arriving each day at the border and say the magic word and get asylum,” Rubio said.
Demings is viewed by Florida Democrats as their strongest candidate of the 2022 midterms. There was initially an internal tug-of-war between some Democrats who wanted her to run against DeSantis for governor. But after some key Democrats pushed her to run for Senate, including DNC Chair Jaime Harrison, she decided to try and stop Rubio from winning a third Senate term.
Demings, who served as a House impeachment manager during impeachment proceedings against former President Donald Trump, has raised $65 million even though she has largely been abandoned by national groups more eager to spend to protect incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, for instance, has not financially helped Demings at all, a surprise exit from Florida Senate races considering some outside groups, including the DSCC, gave roughly $50 million in 2018 to the failed re-election campaign of former Democratic Sen . Bill Nelson. Demings has brought in huge sums in small dollar donations, collecting nearly $8 million alone in August through ActBlue, the Democrat’s biggest small dollar fundraising platform. It was the biggest haul of any Democratic candidate nationally that month.
Rubio has raised nearly $45 million, and has a roughly $3 million cash-on-hand advantage over Demings, whose campaign has spent nearly $60 million compared to $35 million spent by Rubio.
While the issue of crime wasn’t directly during Tuesday’s debate, the state’s multiple mass shootings, including a 2016 shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and the 2018 Parkland shooting that left 17 dead, were a point of contention.
“How long will you watch people being gunned down in first grade, fourth grade, high school, college church synagogue, a grocery store, a movie theater, a mall, and a night club and do nothing?” Demings asked.
Rubio countered that he supports “red flag” laws like the one passed in Florida after the Parkland shooting that created a legal process to temporarily prohibit people who are a harm to themselves or others from possessing firearms. Some conservatives, including DeSantis, said they do not support the Florida law because of 2nd Amendment concerns.
Both were also asked if they would accept the outcome of the 2022 elections, a question that has become commonplace for Republicans after former President Donald Trump’s refusal to admit losing the 2020 election to Biden.
Rubio said he has “never denied an election” and will not this year because he believes in Florida election laws crafted by the state’s Republican-led Legislature.
He decried what he called a “federal takeover of our election system,” which he said is what Democrats seek.
“That’s nonsense,” Demings quickly shot back.