Toomey and McGinty Stick to Their Scripts in First Debate

McGinty painted Toomey as a corporate shill, and Toomey said McGinty is a dishonest millionaire. But there were a few noteworthy moments.

Katie McGinty, Pat Toomey

Left: Katie McGinty photo by Donald Derosa, used under a Creative Commons license. Right: Pat Toomey, Official Portrait

It usually isn’t very fun to watch political debates, mostly because of how predictable they are. Even in the most informal settings, you have two candidates who are dead set on conveying the message they want to convey — the same one that they’ve been repeating throughout their entire campaigns — no matter what the questions are. And you know that you’re going to spend an hour or two watching two human beings disagree with each other without hearing anything very revealing.

Monday’s debate in Pittsburgh between Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and Democratic challenger Katie McGinty was more or less predictable in those ways. Of course, compared to the overwhelming sense of dread and impending obscenity that characterized the last presidential debate, watching it felt like enjoying a light conversation over breakfast with friends.

It wasn’t that there was a lack of acrimony or attempts by both candidates to discredit one other. McGinty painted Toomey as a corporate shill who doesn’t care about his constituents, and Toomey said McGinty is a dishonest millionaire who got rich by working the revolving door between government and industry. But that narrative has been pretty well set since the race began last spring.

Political analysts had been favoring Toomey before the debate, given that McGinty has never held elective office and that Toomey is a more experienced debater. On matters of performance — as in, each candidate’s ability to speak like a standard person without committing a series of oratorical faux pas — the debate seemed fairly even. But a few things did stand out, including an unforced error by McGinty that’s bound to show up in a TV ad by the end of the week.

Toomey gave an animated defense of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Toomey spent a lot of time on Monday rehearsing the lines about McGinty working for an energy company she’d previously regulated and falsely claiming to have been the first person in her family to go to college. But he seemed to be getting into it when he talked about defending Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that determined that corporations, unions, and independent political groups can spend as much money as they want to influence elections as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates. The decision has led to the rise of super PACs, which have flooded campaigns with independent advertising for and against various candidates, including the McGinty-Toomey race.

McGinty criticized Toomey for not working to overturn the decision, but Toomey sought to defend it on principle. The alternative, he said, is that politicians can interfere with free speech.

“People like Katie McGinty who want to overturn Citizens United, let’s be clear about what this case is about,” Toomey said, his voice rising. “Citizens United was a not-for-profit corporation that wanted to allow people to buy a documentary video about Hillary Clinton during the last campaign. And the government’s position, which Katie holds, is that the government should be able to end that. Forbid it. Disallow it. In fact, the government’s argument was that they should even be able to ban books if they’re about politics or politicians.”

McGinty claimed a police endorsement, but couldn’t be specific.

The debate aired Monday night but was filmed early in the afternoon, so this tidbit is already making some headlines, and Toomey’s campaign is aiming to make it a big issue. Toomey said during the debate that he’d been endorsed by every single law-enforcement group that’s made an endorsement in the campaign. McGinty, whose father was a Philadelphia police officer, said that she’d been endorsed too. But she couldn’t say which group had endorsed her.

Her campaign later said that the International Union of Police Associations had endorsed her, but it turned out that group had endorsed Toomey. Eventually, the McGinty campaign clarified that she had been endorsed by the Association’s Pittsburgh local, which represents a few dozen Port Authority officers. Toomey’s campaign is already portraying it as part of a pattern of dishonesty that began with her claim about being the first in her family to go to college.

Toomey’s still punting on Donald Trump.

You’ve heard all about this by now. Toomey says he doesn’t like Trump, but he hasn’t said whether he’ll vote for him or not. The debate moderator, Ken Rice, tried repeatedly to get a straight answer from Toomey on Monday. No luck. Toomey said that even though he doesn’t like Trump, he believes that President Trump would likely sign some “constructive” legislation. Toomey said he would “probably” let people know who he’s voting for prior to the election.

There was a shout-out to the 40-hour workweek.

Even in the drastically polarized political environment of 2016, American politicians of all stripes hold in common a belief in the redemptive power of hard work. This belief is so strong that it sometimes presents as a fetish, and occasionally you get the sense that there really is no upper limit to how much politicians want Americans to work. During the Republican primary, in fact, Jeb Bush said that one of the ways he hoped to stimulate economic growth was to get people to “work longer hours,” though he later said he was referring only to people who work part-time.

Katie McGinty is very much a proponent of the hard-work method of achieving the American Dream, so it stood out when she clarified exactly how much work should be necessary to survive during her closing remarks.

“If you’re willing to work hard, this is the place where it’s about your perseverance, your grit, not about your pedigree, not about your zip code,” she said. “It’s about an American Dream that says, ‘Put in your 40 hours, and you will be able to provide for yourself and your kids.’”

Read Inquirer reporter Jonathan Tamari’s debate takeaways here. See more about the police endorsement kerfuffle here. Watch the full debate here.

A second and final McGinty-Toomey debate has been scheduled on October 24th in Philadelphia. With three weeks to go, the race is as close as they come.

Follow @jaredbrey on Twitter.