SPOKANE — Patty Murray and Tiffany Smiley employed what have become well-worn attacks in their divisive campaign to represent Washington in the U.S. Senate during their only scheduled formal debate Sunday in Spokane.
Murray, who is seeking a sixth term in the chamber, painted her opponent as an extremist on views on abortion and election security, invoking the names of Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump in the process. Smiley, a veterans advocate and triage nurse, repeatedly called Murray a career politician who was the symbol of what Smiley believes are failed policies on policing, the economy and energy.
The candidates sparred on the campus of Gonzaga University in a debate hosted by The Spokesman-Review, the League of Women Voters, KSPS-TV and the university. Recent polls have showed a tightening in a race that Murray is the favorite to win, in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican U.S. senator since 1994.
At one point during the hourlong debate, Smiley invoked the campaign moniker Murray used when she was first elected to the Senate in 1992.
“You know Senator Murray, you’re not the mom in tennis shoes anymore,” Smiley said.
Murray, too, accused Smiley of not accurately representing herself to voters on her positions, specifically on abortion. Smiley has released advertisements indicating she wouldn’t vote for a national abortion ban, but the Murray campaign has seized on social media posts with which Smiley interacted before her campaign to indicate she would take a more restrictive position on access to the procedure.
“There is a huge difference between me and my opponent on this issue,” Murray said. “I believe every woman should be able to make her own health care choices.”
Murray added that she’d support the elimination of the 60-vote threshold in the Senate to pave the way for codifying the right to privacy that was established in Roe v. Wade, and overturned by the Supreme Court earlier this year. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who was in the debate audience, said earlier in the day that she, too, would eliminate the filibuster for the measure.
“We need to send someone to the United States Senate who is going to codify Roe into law,” Cantwell said. “That is the only question, and that is what the Washington state voters should be asking.”
Smiley said she supported the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
It “gave the power to the people, and that’s where I believe it belongs,” Smiley said. “I respect the will of the voters in Washington state.”
Murray said that response indicated Smiley wanted to put the decision in the hands of politicians, to which Smiley responded, “I did not say that.”
Both candidates grew emotional when talking about the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. capitol, and weighing in on whether they believed the finding of a congressional panel’s investigation that Trump was responsible for the violence that day.
“I was in the Capitol on Jan. 6. I was stuck in my office, I didn’t get to run out of the Senate like Josh Hawley did,” Murray said, referring to the senator from Missouri who was one of the objectors to the vote count and could then be seen fleeing the crowd on surveillance footage released during the hearings. “I heard what they said. I heard what their goal was. It was to take over the peaceful transfer of power by brute force.”
Smiley said what happened on that day was “heartbreaking.” She then accused Murray, in a flurry of political ads that have been airing in the state for months, of questioning the patriotism of her family, including her husband, who was blinded by a suicide bomber in Mosul, Iraq, while fighting for the U.S. Army.
“I want to ask, do you believe that me and my family are threats to democracy, Senator Murray?” Smiley said, her voice catching in her throat.
Murray responded that “no one questions her belief in our democracy or her husband’s fight for our country, ever.”
The candidates were asked what the federal government’s role should be in reducing crime. Smiley pointed to the need to secure the U.S. border and stop the flow of illicit drugs, including fentanyl, into the country.
“Our cities are being destroyed by crime, and our police are not being supported,” Smiley said.
Murray pointed to bills she pushed in Congress, including the American Rescue Plan, which a recent Marshall Project review found had funneled billions of dollars to law enforcement. She also said Smiley had not addressed what she said were the root causes of lawlessness in the country: access to guns and mental health issues.
“We need to ban dangerous weapons. We need to ban assault weapons,” Murray said. “We need to make sure that we have really good background checks.”
Smiley said it was important to ensure citizens’ Second Amendment rights were protected while keeping guns out of the hands of criminals.
The candidates also disagreed about the necessity of passing legislation to protect the right to marriage for same-sex and interracial couples, a measure taken up in the U.S. House after Democrats cited a concurring opinion in the abortion decision suggesting the privacy right, that was overturned, may not extend to wedded couples.
Smiley said she would support such a bill, as long as it had “strong religious protections within it.”
“I want to make clear that this is law, it’s settled law, and it’s merely a distraction,” Smiley said, before suggesting Democrats brought the bill forward to divert attention from crime.
Murray responded with a remark that echoed several of her ads against Smiley, suggesting Smiley is a hand-picked candidate of Senate Republicans who want control back in the chamber.
“I feel like I’m listening to Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor,” Murray said, to some light laughter in the audience. Murray said such a codification was needed following the Supreme Court’s decision, and that she would support the bill in the Senate.
The full debate is available to view online on the website of TVW, Washington’s public affairs network. It will also re-air on KSPS-TV’s “World” channel, 7.2 on digital broadcast, at 8 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. Oct. 30 and 5 a.m. on Nov. 1.
Election Day is Nov. 8.