NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (WPRI) — Democratic Congressman Bill Keating and Republican challenger Peter Tedeschi met for a notably cordial debate Wednesday night, as both decried the increasing incivility of national politics while acknowledging they have their differences.
Keating, first elected in 2010, and Tedeschi, former CEO of his family’s convenience-store chain, are seeking to represent Massachusetts’ 9th Congressional District, which stretches from the southern section of Fall River through New Bedford and out to the Cape and Islands.
No public polling has been conducted in the race, but the 9th District is more Republican-friendly territory than other parts of Massachusetts and Tedeschi has been spending heavily. The GOP nominee had spent $563,000 as of Sept. 30, while Keating had spent $432,000, according to Federal Election Commission records. Keating still had far more campaign cash on hand, however.
During the debate - sponsored by the SouthCoast Alliance and held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum - Keating played up his legislative record, citing bills he’s either passed or sponsored and federal funding he's secured for the district.
“This Congress, of 435 members, I am the fourth-most effective in getting my amendments passed, which is a very tangible way to measure bipartisanism,” Keating said, adding that he has "learned to find common ground."
Tedeschi tried to poke holes in Keating’s argument, citing a ranking that showed him to be among the House’s most partisan members.
“He's been in office 41 years,” Tedeschi said. “He's a four-term congressman looking for his fifth term. I on the other hand believe in term limits.” He said he will serve no more than three terms if elected, and argued more turnover would help fix "a broken Congress."
The two found common ground on many issues. They agreed that special counsel Robert Mueller should be allowed to finish his investigation into Russian collusion, and that it’s premature to discuss impeaching President Trump; that student loan burdens are too high; and that renewable energy will be important to combating climate change.
There was some daylight between the two candidates when it came to the tax cuts Trump signed last fall. Keating, who voted against the bill, warned that the lost revenue will likely lead Republicans to seek cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
“That was $2.3 trillion, unfunded,” Keating said. “Over one-tenth of the entire national debt, right there.”
Tedeschi emphasized that he did not cast a vote on the tax bill and said he might have opposed it because it reduced the exemption for state and local taxes, though he also argued having a Massachusetts Republican in the House might have avoided that.
As for the effect on the deficit, Tedeschi cited the strong economy and said, “I'm hoping that that is going to help fill the gap.”
Another flashpoint: fishing quotas. Tedeschi criticized Keating for voting against extending the Magnuson–Stevens Act, which regulates the sector, while Keating countered that the final bill had been radically changed from the original and insisted he had consulted with the local fishing industry before his vote.
Tedeschi kept his distance from Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Massachusetts, and made no effort to link himself with the president. By contrast, he repeatedly emphasized his closeness with Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who is coasting to re-election. “I want to be Governor Baker’s partner on Capitol Hill,” he said.
Keating shied away from direct criticism of Trump, but he warned of "fundamental values under attack." He bemoaned the rancor in Washington, even tossing out his prepared closing statement to comment on the explosive devices sent to various Democrats and CNN on Wednesday.
“Is this what our country has come to?” he asked. “Live ammunition and bombs targeted to people involved, as Peter and I are, in the political setting, trying to commit to public service? We have to do better than that.” He also thanked Tedeschi for keeping their debates “civil.”
Keating declined to say if he would support Nancy Pelosi to continue as House Democrats' leader in January, noting he was part of a group that unsuccessfully pressed the party's top officials to delay appointments after the last election. "Right now I'm open to any candidate," he said.
Tedeschi likewise declined to say who he would support to lead House Republicans next year. "I'm looking for someone that's not so much party-affiliated," he said.
Shannon Jenkins, who moderated the debate and is a political-science professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said that while national forecasters generally rate the 9th District as a safe Democratic seat, "there are reasons to believe that this race may be closer than people think."
Jenkins noted that the Democratic advantage is far smaller in the 9th than in other Massachusetts districts. "Furthermore, Republican challenger Tedeschi has both name recognition from his family’s convenience stores and personal wealth that comes from the sale of that chain of stores to 7-11," she said in an email prior to the debate.
"Ultimately, it’s difficult to tell where this race stands as there is no public polling data, but I do think voters have two different and strong choices in the 9th," she said.
Southeastern Massachusetts' other congressman, Democrat Joe Kennedy III, is running unopposed this fall. He represents the 4th Congressional District, which stretches from Fall River and Taunton through the Attleboros up to Boston's western suburbs.
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