EASTON, Mass. — The Republicans competing for their party’s nomination in the Massachusetts special U.S. Senate race to fill John Kerry’s seat met for their first debate of the campaign in Easton Tuesday night.
At the forum at Stonehill College, the three contenders — Cohasset businessman Gabriel Gomez, former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan and Norfolk state Rep. Daniel Winslow — debated everything from gun control to immigration reform, while agreeing on many issues.
All three candidates took stock Republican positions on Social Security. They all said they oppose raising the cap on income taxed to pay for Social Security, support delaying the age you can start collecting, and suggested means testing.
The candidates also discussed prosecutorial overreach. Winslow criticized what he saw as the criminalization of wide swaths of conduct and the uneven application by prosecutors of mandatory minimum sentencing requirements he saw as a judge. Sullivan, who had U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s job, said it’s legitimate to ask if threatening Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in December while awaiting trial, with a 35-year sentence was appropriate.
On gun control, all three candidates indicated they would oppose an assault weapons ban but Gomez and Sullivan said they would support background checks.
Both Winslow and Gomez said they oppose granting amnesty to any undocumented immigrants. Sullivan said he would give it to people who serve in the armed forces.
While Winslow seemed to have command of the broadest range of issues, possibly because of his career as a legislator, Gomez seemed to struggle the most. His friends say he is very bright and loves to share his opinions on a broad range of issues, but he now finds himself in a new forum — a highly visible political race — and seems to be struggling to find his voice.
As a former U.S. attorney, Sullivan was very knowledgeable on issues related to justice, but did not seem to have as much command of issues outside his expertise.
Sullivan and Winslow seemed relaxed at all times while Gomez was so nervous his hands shook.
During the matchup, Gomez was asked about a letter he’d sent to Gov. Deval Patrick asking that he fill the interim U.S. Senate seat now occupied by former Patrick aide William “Mo” Cowan. Until now, both Patrick and Gomez have refused to release the letter.
“This was a unique opportunity for the governor to reach across the aisle and appoint someone like myself who is not a career politician, who is willing to go and work with the president on the hard issues that the country faces right now,” Gomez said. “And unfortunately I didn’t even get a response from the governor’s office. Ironically, the person I hand-delivered it to was Mo Cowan.”
At the debate, Gomez said he would release the letter Wednesday.
When asked about Scott Brown’s unsuccessful run for reelection, Gomez said it was “sad” that Brown lost his race to Elizabeth Warren, but did not offer an analysis as to why. Sullivan and Winslow both criticized the national Republican Party.
“I think Scott Brown did a phenomenal job,” Sullivan said. “I think quite candidly, President Obama was extremely popular and as a result of that popularity I think Sen. Warren got a lot of the benefit of President Obama’s popularity, and I think it hurt a little bit in terms of Scott Brown.
“I don’t think as a party we did as good of a job in terms of reaching out to what I think are natural core constituencies,” he added.
There were some lighter moments, as when the candidates commented on U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster on the subject of drone strikes on American citizens. The subject is causing a developing rift among U.S. Senate Republicans. Hawks such Sen. John McCain, of Arizona and Sen. Lindsay Graham, of South Carolina, have criticized Paul, one of the leaders of the Tea Party. But all three candidates sided with Paul Tuesday night, who filibustered for 13 hours.
Gomez and Winslow used to opportunity to joke about their endurance.
“It’s mind over bladder at that point,” Winslow said. “I would absolutely go down there and I would stand up until I got an answer about these issues, about violation of civil liberties.”
“I used to be a SEAL,” Gomez said. “I think I could go for a few days.”
This post was updated with Morning Edition feature content.