MANHATTAN (CN) – Coming down to the wire in a hotly contested election season, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand found support but little enthusiasm from her base Thursday outside the news studio where she debated Republican challenger Chele Farley.
Across the street form the Upper West Side offices of debate host ABC-7, registered Democrat Leonia Sagasta said she always votes but was “not too familiar” with Gillibrand.
“I’m a Democrat all the way through, so I would support her,” said Sagasta, who noted that she chairs the Soroptimist International of Manhattan, a volunteer organization that works to improve the lives of women and girls.
In just a 30-minute showdown, Gillibrand and Farley managed to cover an impressive number of topics including terrorism, immigration, health care, taxes, campaign finance, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, climate change and bipartisanship.
Gillibrand, who was first elected in 2009 to fill Hillary Clinton’s seat when Clinton was appointed secretary of state, is expected to win the election in a landslide. An Oct. 18 FiveThirtyEight poll predicted she’ll garner 58 percent of the vote to Farley’s 33 percent, and a Quinnipiac poll from the same day found the same results.
Sagasta said education and homelessness are two of the biggest issues she sees in New York. Thursday’s debate did not directly address those issues, though Farley did say she supports a tax deduction for renters. Gillibrand almost agreed with her, saying renters should get a tax credit instead.
Sagasta also lamented the economic gap.
“There’s such a great division now in the economic gap between the have-nots — there’s more every day — and then the people that are just struggling with the average wage, and the prices are skyrocketing, and I see this division widening continuously every day,” Sagasta said.
Outside the Kings County courthouse in downtown Brooklyn, a woman who wanted to be identified only as Michelle said she worries about gentrification, high rent and the high cost of living in the city.
“I know people, their pension goes towards rent,” said Michelle, a Democrat.
Gillibrand is widely considered a potential 2020 presidential candidate, though she denied Thursday that she would run. Moderator Bill Ritter pointed out that she’d been frugal in her spending on the senatorial campaign; The New York Times reported Oct. 20 that she has built up a $10.7 million war chest.
Ritter asked the big question early. Would Gillibrand tell New Yorkers who plan to vote for her that she would, if re-elected, serve out her six-year term as senator?
“I will,” Gillibrand said, explaining the low spending by saying hers was “a modern campaign … run by the grassroots.”
“I will serve my six-year term,” she said.
Farley challenged that assertion in her response. “Honestly, I don’t believe that,” she said.
Pressed again on the issue by journalists after the debate, Gillibrand changed her phrasing slightly.
“I’m running for Senate,” she said. Pressed further, she clarified: “Yeah, I intend to serve my Senate term.”
Despite running in what Gillibrand called “an all-time low for political discourse,” the candidates — both women — actually agreed during the debate on some issues, one of which is the need for more immigration judges at the U.S.-Mexico border.
When asked by Ritter to address the spree of bombs mailed this week to people and entities that President Trump has singled out for criticism — and those who have criticized Trump — Gillibrand thanked the first responders and pointed to what she said was a rise in hate crimes across New York.
Farley called the bombs “an act of terrorism” and criticized Gillibrand for wanting to abolish Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the post-9/11 investigative agency that is partly tasked with stopping terrorism but which has been denounced by Democrats for controversial deportations.
Ritter also asked the candidates for their thoughts on the group of migrants making their way north through Mexico to the U.S. border, sparking a heated back-and-forth about immigration.
“People are calling it a caravan; I call it an invasion,” Farley said, claiming without evidence that some of the migrants could be members of the Islamic State group or the gang MS-13.
Both candidates said they did not want to see migrant children separated from their parents at the border, and both called for comprehensive immigration reform. Farley accused Gillibrand of being all talk and no action.
On health care, Gillibrand said she believes in Medicare for all.
“I believe that health care should be a human right and not a privilege,” she said.
But Farley shot back that Medicare for all would cost $32 trillion, asking how Gillibrand planned to cover that cost.
According to FactCheck.org, the $32 trillion estimate, while not inaccurate, leaves out important context: that it would actually mean less health care spending overall. Gillibrand echoed this point.
“Insurance companies do not have the same goals as you and I,” she said. “We have to be willing to take on the insurers … and get them out of the equation.”
Farley said the U.S. needs a plan that covers pre-existing conditions and keeps children on their parents’ plans until they’re 26, two of the most popular features of the health care law put in place by former President Barack Obama.
The candidates said they would take different approaches to the climate change crisis.
“We should be investing in wind and solar and geothermal and biofuels, not beholden to Middle Eastern oil,” said Gillibrand.
“We know that there is global climate change, but it is not American climate change,” Farley said. “We’ll do everything we can, we know the climate is changing, but we’ve got to balance it with economic interests.”
A few benches down from Michelle outside the Brooklyn courthouse, a Queens-born union organizer named Zamir Khan said “basic human rights” are to him the most important issue this election season. He said he’s registered as an independent.
“It’s a weird time in America,” he said. Later, he added: “I’m proud to call myself an American; I don’t feel like I’m represented by my elected officials.”
Brandon Hodge, standing on the sidewalk near Broadway & West 68th streets, said he had heard on the news that the candidates would be debating, but was “not familiar with anything” and wanted to catch up. A New Jersey resident on the opposite sidewalk said he had heard of Farley but did not want to talk.
Debate host Ritter meanwhile made a plea to viewers as he wrapped up with Gillibrand and Farley on Thursday.
“Go out and vote on November 6,” he said. “That is the backbone of our country. It is our right, but it is also our duty.”
The debate was live-streamed Thursday on WABC-TV’s social media platforms. It will also air on Ritter’s show, “Up Close with Bill Ritter,” on Oct. 28 at 11 a.m.