Tuesday’s debate between U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-Newark) and Republican challenger Rik Mehta revealed sharp, sometimes chasmic, splits between the two candidates on health care, the pandemic and race relations in the United States.
Booker, still less than a year off an unsuccessful presidential campaign, repeatedly launched attacks at President Donald Trump over his policies, while Mehta lobbed bombs at Gov. Phil Murphy while defending the president’s record.
The divide was perhaps in its sharpest relief over the candidate’s ratings of Murphy and Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
“Gov. Murphy, under the most difficult circumstances has done extraordinary leadership and made really a lot of tough calls. I stood with him on many occasions during the pandemic fighting to make sure New Jersey had the resources it needed,” Booker said. “Unfortunately, in many cases, New Jersey was put in a position where they had to bid against other states because Donald Trump failed to show presidential leadership
Mehta disagreed, attacking Murphy over his steering of the state’s response to the crisis.
“New Jersey, out of every other state in the country has lost the most number of lives to COVID than per hundred thousand than any other state, and that’s unacceptable,” Mehta said. “That decision by the governor, one who has not been held accountable yet by Sen. Booker, executed the order to move patients from the hospital to the nursing homes.”
The Republican made other swipes at the governor dealing mainly with COVID and the state of New Jersey’s economy after more than half a year of virus restrictions.
Mehta, the first South Asian to win a party nomination for U.S. Senate in New Jersey, said he believed systemic racism did not exist, citing his own political success.
“As a person of color who’s grown up through racism, I can tell you we don’t have systemic racism,” he said. “I wouldn’t be standing here — in fact Sen. Booker and I both wouldn’t be here debating each other if there was systemic racism in politics, for example. We have done so much to advance the conversation since 1967. We don’t need to keep going back to that.”
Booker took the opposite view, charging systemic racism was real and accusing Trump of feeding into racial animus.
“He’s been creating a culture in our country that is trying to pit people against each other,” Booker said. “Hate crimes are up in this country, and in fact, the majority of terrorist attacks in this nation since 9/11 have been right-wing extremist groups, the majority of those white supremacist groups. But is our president taking white supremacy seriously? Is he condemning it? No.”
The two were also split on abortion. Mehta is pro-life, while Booker is pro-choice.
They also disagreed on Trump’s approach to foreign policy, with the incumbent charging he had alienated allies and cozied up to authoritarian leaders.
The challenger lauded Trump’s dealing with China, citing a defense agreement between the United States and India signed early Tuesday morning meant to prevent further fighting over disputed the Himalayan border between India and China.
The Republican opposed statehood for Puerto Rico and Columbia, claiming such notions were a partisan bid to ensure a Democratic Senate.
“This is just another way to pack the Senate. I know Sen. Booker wants to pack the courts. Now he wants to pack the Senate. He wants to push political ideology and political agenda,” Mehta said. “I don’t even know if that’s what the Puerto Ricans want. Has anyone asked them?”
The most recent referendum on Puerto Rican statehood, held in 2017, found an overwhelming number of respondents wanted the territory to be made the 51st state, but that resolution was discounted because of low turnout. Another referendum is being held this year.
Booker did not clearly say whether the territory and district should be granted statehood, but he did say the constitutional process to admit states should be followed, also briefly railing against taxation without representation.
“They have more population in the District of Columbia than some states. They pay more in federal taxes than about 10 states. People in that community are just as much American citizens as I am. They pay money but have no voice in their governance,” he said. “It’s a fundamental ideal in this country that, if you’re being taxed — taxation without representation. We did fight a revolution over that issue and more.”
While the incumbent didn’t outright embrace court packing following the hasty confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, he said it was time to have a national conversation about court balance.
“While my Senate colleagues on the other side of the aisle did not want to wait and listen to the American people like they said should have happened just months ago, I believe it’s about time we find ways to making sure the Supreme Court is a democratic institution and not being done in anti-democratic fashions like we’ve seen with Mitch McConnell,” Booker said.
Mehta responded with an attack at Booker, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, over “theatrics” during Barrett’s confirmation hearing.
“What we needed in the Judiciary Committee hearings is not theatrics,” he said. “What we needed is a bipartisan approach to talk about what the future of our country is.”
The candidates also split on the Affordable Care Act. Mehta said he wanted the law replaced, while Booker stressed it was responsible for insuring hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans implementing protections for pre-existing conditions, which Mehta said he supports, and eliminating lifetime insurance caps, among other things.
The debate, the only one held for the Senate contest this year, was moderated by New Jersey Globe Editor David Wildstein.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article said Mehta lauded the Trump’s pandemic response, backed the president’s suit to strike the ACA and opposed abortion rights. All three counts were incorrect, and the story has been updated to reflect that.