In their first head-to-head debate Thursday evening, the Democratic and Republican nominees for Vermont’s open U.S. Senate seat offered a stark choice to voters.
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Gerald Malloy, a U.S. Army veteran and first-time candidate, took to the debate stage in Manchester to outline sharply diverging perspectives on what ails the country — and what to do about it. The hourlong event, hosted by VTDigger at the Southern Vermont Arts Center, covered abortion, inflation and the state of democracy in America, among other topics.
Asked how he would address record inflation plaguing the country, Malloy blamed Congress’ trillion-dollar pandemic-era spending packages and offered a simple solution: “Have some fiscal responsibility, stop overspending and destroying the future for our children.”
Welch, on the other hand, touted recently enacted legislation to negotiate drug prices and spur semiconductor chip manufacturing domestically. And he argued the way to get the cost of basic needs down for such expenses as childcare and housing was for Congress to make renewed investments in them.
“And by the way, Mr. Malloy, we can pay for that,” Welch said. “And you know how we pay for it? By asking the folks who haven't been paying their fair share.”
Last week, President Biden delivered a prime-time address about democracy and political extremism in which he warned of the rise of what he called “MAGA Republicans.” That wing of the party, he said, refuses “to accept the results of a free election,” and is “working right now, as I speak, in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.”
Asked whether he agreed with the president’s diagnosis, Malloy said he did not and criticized Biden for being divisive. “I want to unify our country, and he's not doing that in speeches like this,” Malloy said. Prompted in a follow-up question to say whether he believed Biden had legitimately won the 2020 election, Malloy did not hesitate. “Yes,” he said.
Welch, for his part, said the country was facing “a serious, serious threat to our democracy” and called January 6, 2021, when a mob supporting then-President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stop the election’s certification, “one of the saddest days of my life in public service.”
Biden’s speech alluded to a legal strategy, known as the independent state legislature doctrine, that would give such bodies more discretion to draw legislative maps and write voting laws without constraints from the courts. Opponents say those efforts would make it easier to gerrymander districts and pave the way for states to subvert the results in the 2024 presidential election.
Welch said he’d back the Electoral Count Reform Act to push back against such efforts. Asked if he, too, would support the bill, Malloy responded that he would have to “review it closely.”
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which struck down the federal right to an abortion, numerous VTDigger readers submitted questions on abortion. Welch cast himself as a steadfast advocate of reproductive rights, and pledged to continue to fight tirelessly for them.
“I will not stop. I will not compromise on protecting reproductive freedom. Not just for women in Vermont — I'll be voting for Proposition 5 — but for all women in this nation. Your right to make your own reproductive choices should not depend on the zip code you live in,” he said.
Proposal 5, which will appear on the general election ballot in Vermont this November as Article 22, would enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.
Republican lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have said they would consider passing a nationwide abortion ban should they win back the majority in Congress. Malloy, who describes himself as “pro-life,” said he cheered the end of Roe v. Wade because he believes abortion laws should be up to states to decide. But asked if he would back a nationwide abortion ban, the Republican nominee dodged the question.
“I believe it belongs at the state. So if it were to somehow come up again — which I really don't think it will — I would look at that,” Malloy said. “But I believe it belongs at the state.”
Pressed again as to whether he would vote “no,” on any such bill, Malloy responded that he would “have to look at it.”
Welch sidestepped a question, as well. The U.S. House member has pledged not to take donations from corporate political action committees in his run for the Senate. But he had accepted such donations in his eight previous congressional runs — and carried over a $2 million war chest from those past campaigns to this one.
Asked why he had done so, Welch instead launched into a monologue about how broken the country’s campaign finance system was and touted an endorsement from End Citizens United, a campaign finance reform advocacy group.
“What’s really astonishing, since Citizens United, is dark money — that is a million dollar check can be written by a person whose identity is not disclosed — can be sent to a state and would start influencing elections,” he said, referring to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to unregulated money in politics.
The debate offered the candidates the opportunity to ask one another questions directly. Welch’s first question to Malloy: Why didn’t you receive the Covid-19 vaccine?
That’s my “personal choice,” the GOP nominee replied.
“I decided to go with the natural immunity route, and I respect anyone's decision to be vaccinated. I don't think it was right to mandate vaccines, but if anyone wants to be vaccinated, that's an individual decision,” Malloy said.
He then asked Welch about his recent support for an $80 billion increase to the Internal Revenue Service’s budget and cited a recent Syracuse University study, which found that the poor are about 5 times more likely to be audited than the rich. The cash influx is intended to fund thousands of new auditors, and the Republican asked the Democrat why, in this economy, the latter wanted to “increase tax collection on Americans.”
“There are a lot of Americans who make an awful lot of money who aren't paying their taxes. And I think their taxes ought to be collected,” Welch said. “The top 1% — the estimates are — are not paying $160 billion a year in taxes that they owe. Not higher taxes, not new taxes, taxes that are due.”
Still, on a select few topics, the two candidates generally agreed. When asked, for example, about the controversial decision to base F-35 fighter jets in South Burlington, both Welch and Malloy said they supported it. Community activists resisted the arrival of the planes for years, and nearly three years into their operation, many in the flight path still complain of disruptions and health impacts from the noise. Some say they’ve had no choice but to move.
Welch, who supported the basing decision throughout the multi-year process, said he stood by his advocacy. “We’re very proud of our National Guard. The Air Guard needs airplanes,” he said.
But he acknowledged that the planes’ arrival had come with some genuine downsides for some nearby residents.
“That's tough on some folks in the neighborhood. It really is. Because there is noise associated with that,” Welch said. “And I've been a persistent advocate for noise mitigation, including buying up homes at a fair price if that's what the choice is.”
Malloy said the jets were “part of our national defense” and called the roar of their engines “the sound of freedom.”
Another item of agreement? Their apparent admiration for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., whose retirement after nearly five decades in the Senate opened up the seat they now seek.
Asked what he might do differently than Vermont’s senior senator, Welch said he was uncharacteristically “stumped” by the question.
“I'm very proud of his service, and I don't second-guess his decisions. I felt a great honor to be a team member with him and Bernie,” Welch said, referring to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Malloy responded that “40 years of service is quite an accomplishment.”
“I also don't have anything specific that I would do different,” he said.
Near the conclusion of the debate, the candidates were asked to provide brief answers to questions in a lightning round.
Queried about their support for reforming Senate filibuster rules in order for legislation to pass by simple majority, Malloy offered a simple “no,” and Welch a quick “yes.” On whether Congress should continue to dole out earmarks — federal funding for local projects chosen by individual members of the House and Senate — Welch said yes, “as long as they are public and transparent,” and Malloy also said yes, “with limitations.”
As to whom they would support for Senate majority leader, should their respective parties control the chamber, Malloy was noncommittal, saying he would “want to meet with several individuals,” although he offered that he was a fan of U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. Welch said he’d support whomever his party nominated — “in all likelihood,” U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who currently holds the post.
Asked whether they would support statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, Welch said yes — if Puerto Rico wanted it. Malloy said he’d have to give it more thought but that “off the top of my head, no, I don’t think that needs to happen at this point.” On the topic of abolishing the electoral college, Malloy was a straight “no,” and Welch said he was “open to it,” saying he would prefer majority rule.
Welch was asked if President Biden should run again in 2024, and he replied that that was up to the president. “If he does, I’ll support him,” he added. Malloy was asked if former President Trump should run again then, as well, and he replied that he would “leave that up to President Trump.”
In the arena of drug policy, Malloy said he would “consider” legalizing marijuana for use in U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. Welch said he would legalize marijuana but would not support legalizing other drugs. Malloy said he did not support safe injection sites; Welch said he would be “open” to them if they garnered support from the community.
In closing arguments, Malloy reiterated that he believed the country was at a “critical juncture” and told Vermonters to “vote your conscience.”
“The economy and crime crises are not going to get better unless we make changes,” he said. “I ask for your consideration and I ask for your vote. This veteran will serve and fight for all America, all Vermonters. I will deliver a better future for all Vermonters.”
In his own final remarks, Welch also nodded once again to the nation’s growing discontent and divisions. “It’s a really tough time in this country,” he said.
But Welch also argued that Democratic majorities in Washington were beginning to deliver for the country. He cited the Inflation Reduction Act, which included the largest single investment ever made by Congress to reduce emissions, and healthcare reforms aimed at lowering the cost of care. He also pointed to a breakthrough gun control law, and a recent infrastructure package that is expected to send over $2 billion to Vermont.
“The political dialogue and debate is really making people upset and understandably so,” Welch said. “But you know what? We're starting to get things done.”
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