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Markey And O'Connor Spar In Senate Debate, Offering Two Distinct Political Visions04:30
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Republican challenger Kevin O'Connor appears in a debate against Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, at the GBH Studios in Boston. (Composite of Meredith Nierman/Pool Photos via AP)
Republican challenger Kevin O'Connor appears in a debate against Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, at the GBH Studios in Boston. (Composite of Meredith Nierman/Pool Photos via AP)

In their first and only debate before Election Day, Democratic Sen. Ed Markey and Republican challenger Kevin O'Connor disagreed on just about everything, from the president's handling of the pandemic to the Green New Deal.

The debate, hosted by GBH less than a month before the election, left no doubt as to where the two stand on the issues. Markey is a progressive, determined to see Democrats prevail in November, and O'Connor is a Republican who supports President Trump.

Unlike the long, hard-fought Democratic primary, in which Markey and Congressman Joe Kennedy agreed on just about every major issue, Markey and O'Connor presented two sharply contrasting views of government Monday night. Markey touted his signature issues — from the Green New Deal to Medicare For all, while casting O'Connor as a "Donald Trump Republican."

"You know you're a Donald Trump Republican when you don't wear a mask in public just like Mr. O'Connor," Markey said. "You know you're a Trump Republican when you're not willing to talk about the magnitude of the climate threat to our planet and what the solution should be."

That attack summed up Markey's main objective in the debate — to tie O'Connor to an unpopular president.

Although O'Connor supports Trump, he cast himself as a "Kevin O'Connor Republican." The attorney from Dover pointed out that Gov. Charlie Baker has endorsed him, describing himself as a political outsider who can work across the aisle and get things done.

Much like Kennedy did, O'Connor cast Markey as a creature of Washington, but then pushed further, accusing Markey of embracing political positions that O'Connor says are well outside the American political mainstream. For example, Markey has said that if Democrats win control of the Senate, they should end the filibuster and expand the Supreme Court to reduce the influence of conservatives, a proposal that O'Connor called "a terrible idea."

"It's been discredited by everyone," he said. "Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg said it's a bad idea. No one of common sense thinks that Senator Markey's idea is good — and even the Biden campaign thought it was ill-advised. So, he's on the outside of the mainstream of his own party."

O'Connor attacked Markey for his sponsorship of the Green New Deal, which he called "an extreme program," and for his advocacy of Medicare For All, which he labeled "socialized medicine."

For his part, Markey countered that if O'Connor prevails in November, he will join the Republican effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and other programs embraced by Democrats.

"He will be going down to Washington to be a vote with Mitch McConnell on the floor of the United States Senate," Markey said.

The two also clashed on the issue dominating the current political moment: the pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans. With polls suggesting that most Americans disapprove of the way President Trump has managed it, Markey called the president's actions "criminally negligent."

"Even today, irresponsibly, [President Trump] is telling people not to be afraid of the coronavirus," Markey said.

In response,  O'Connor criticized Markey for politicizing the issue — and for not holding China responsible for the global outbreak, which led to one of the sharpest exchanges of the evening.

"So, senator, China is not at fault?" O'Connor demanded to know. "Is that what you're saying, senator?"

"I did not say that," Markey shot back.

Although O'Connor, a political newcomer, held his own during the debate, landing some hard punches against Markey, it's doubtful he caused any real damage to the incumbent.

In the first place, a lot of people were probably watching the Patriots game Monday night. But more to the point, O'Connor faces a big political challenge: attacking Markey for representing the left wing of the Democratic Party is an argument with which Markey would agree. The Democrat from Malden has a decades-long progressive record, which works in Massachusetts — especially now.

As the Republican challenger linked to an unpopular president, O'Connor has a much more difficult case to make.

This segment aired on October 6, 2020.

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Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

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