Storrs — With well-practiced moves and occasional flashes of spontaneity, Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon counter-punched over each other’s character, intellectual depth and commitment to women’s reproductive health Thursday night in their second U.S. Senate debate.
Murphy scored the only applause line of the night when McMahon launched into an ill-timed attack on his ethics: At the time, she was responding to a question about whether personal attacks are crowding out issues.
“I think you asked Linda McMahon if she was going to stop the character assaults,” Murphy said. He paused, smiled and waited for effect.
The crowd at the University of Connecticut’s Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts laughed, then applauded, prompting the only rebuke of the night from the moderator, Al Terzi of FoxCT, which sponsored the debate with the Hartford Courant and UConn.
It was a rare moment when the crowd played a role in the half-empty 1,500-seat performance space.
Murphy, a three-term congressman, and McMahon, the former chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment, were meeting in a televised debate for the second time in four days. They meet twice more next week, in New London and Hartford.
Each arrived with an obvious plan of attack: Murphy to brand McMahon as the potential deciding vote in tipping control of the Senate into the hands of a right-wing GOP; McMahon to emphasize her independence, her business acumen — and her support of abortion rights, which has been questioned.
Murphy, who campaigned earlier in the day with Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL, Pro-Choice America, is using abortion and reproductive health to blunt gains McMahon has made among women, whom polling shows still are leaning Democratic, but not by the overwhelming margins of 2010, when McMahon lost to Democrat Richard Blumenthal.
When the issue came up Thursday night, McMahon asserted she is pro-choice and then quickly tried to shift the discussion away from abortion to more comfortable terrain: the sluggish state of the economy under the Democratic administration of President Obama — and its effect on women.
“These are the issues that are really facing our women,” McMahon said. “When I’m traveling around the state, they are not really talking to me about contraception. They are talking to me about how they’re going to get a job.”
Murphy countered by tying the issue of reproductive health care to the economy — and to her status as an independently wealthy woman who can afford to spend an estimated $75 million so far on two runs for U.S. Senate.
“Health care may not be an economic issue to Linda McMahon, but it is to millions of women when they don’t have access to basic preventative health care, and their employer denies them access to birth control and contraception. That’s an economic issue to women in this state,” Murphy said.
Reproductive health is a wedge issue in the race, especially Murphy’s opposition and McMahon’s support for the Blunt Amendment, a failed GOP effort to allow any employer to deny contraceptive and other reproductive health coverage as a matter of personal conscience.
Murphy said McMahon would empower a “radical, right-wing U.S. Senate that would deny a woman’s right to choose and would vote to end contraception coverage for millions of women.”
“Chris, that’s not true. I am a pro-choice candidate,” McMahon said. “I’ve always been a pro-choice candidate.”
She said the Blunt Amendment was about religious freedom, not reproductive health. Murphy questioned if McMahon had read the amendment, noting that it would allow any employer — not only religious institutions — to deny coverage.
McMahon defended her attack ads, saying the questions of favoritims she raised about a $43,000 home-equity loan Murphy obtained after being sued for non-payment of rent and mortgage are legitimate. Murphy says he and his wife qualified for the 4.99 percent loan, but he has refused to release loan documents.
“Congressman Murphy, why don’t you just release the records?” McMahon asked. “It’s very easy for you to exonerate yourself.”
“Linda McMahon is addicted to personal attacks,” Murphy said.
“Just show me the documents, and we can lay all this to rest,” McMahon said. “I just think personal integrity is an issue.”
Murphy said he paid his debts, but McMahon waited 36 years, until the approach of the election, to repay creditors from her 1976 bankruptcy, even though her annual income in recent years has been $30 million or more.
“Well, I eventually did pay,” she said.
Murphy dodged the specifics of McMahon’s attacks on his attendance record: Her campaign says he has missed 75 percent of committee meetings.
“What she is trying to say essentially is an attack on my work ethic,” Murphy said. The congressman said the effort he puts into constituent work and his representation of the 5th District cannot be questioned.
He then questioned McMahon’s voting record, saying she has failed to show up on Election Day throughout much of her adult life.
“That is absolutely false,” she said.
After the debate, when asked about stories during her first campaign about her not voting, McMahon said that was not her recollection. “My recollection is I was a pretty diligent voter,” she sid.
But McMahon acknowledged at various times during her 2010 race that she wasn’t always diligent. On Sept. 22, 2009, Politico quoted from her campaign blog:
“I talk all the time about how important it is for people to vote. And it is. Yet, I haven’t always been the best example myself. I missed a general election vote in ‘06. I missed several local elections. I didn’t vote in the ’08 presidential primary after John McCain was the presumptive nominee. I regret it, I apologize, and I don’t make any excuses for it. I think it’s important that leaders be willing to step up and own their mistakes when they make them.”
On Afghanistan, the two candidates differed on how quickly the U.S. should withdraw. Murphy said he favors speeding up the drawdown of U.S. troops. McMahon faulted Obama for setting a deadline of September 2014 to bring the troops home, then added she supports his timetable now that it is set.
Murphy reiterated his support of the Affordable Care Act and called health care a fundmental human right.
“We should make sure this bill goes into effect, perfect it if we need to,” he said.
McMahon said the bill has attractive elements, such as allowing parents to keep their young adult children on family health policies until age 26, but overall she considered it a failure and would vote to “repeal and replace” it, though she did not say with what.
Murphy said the GOP has no viable alternative to replace the health care law.
“Linda McMahon is going to be a vote to repeal the bill. Period,” he said.