Voting rights finally gets time on presidential debate stage

by | Nov 21, 2019 | 2020 Elections, Politics

Ten candidates met on stage in Atlanta on Wednesday for what was somehow only the fifth debate of the Democratic presidential primary. While many of the candidates touched on themes they’ve explored in previous debates, the ongoing impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump took center stage.

Candidates spent the first portion of the evening talking about Trump’s worsening prospects as explosive testimony on Wednesday confirmed there was bribery (a quid pro quo) in Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

While the candidates who were asked to weigh in seemed unanimous in their support of the impeachment investigation, it proved to be yet another flash point in the battle between progressive and moderate positions, with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaking about the need to be a fair juror if there is an impeachment trial in the Senate.

Klobuchar has been vying with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttiegieg to overtake former Vice President Joe Biden in the moderate lane of the primary. The Minnesotan had some good moments in tonight’s debate, as did New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who called on Democrats to put forth policies that will help communities of color build wealth. 

Booker’s comments carry extra weight for states like Texas, where voters of color make up huge blocks of the Democratic primary electorate. Buttiegieg has struggled to attract support from black voters in particular.

In one exchange, California Sen. Kamala Harris was asked about criticism of Buttiegieg’s outreach to and missteps with the black community. She said it was an example of Democrats taking a constituency for granted and implored Democrats to show up for black women—a crucial voting block. Harris continued to emphasize the importance of mobilizing voters of color to the Democrats’ success at the ballot box.

Biden had a huge stumble on stage, claiming he had the endorsement of the only African-American woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate. When it was pointed out that Kamala Harris was standing a few feet away from him on stage, Biden donned a deer-in-headlights look on his face. 

Voting rights finally got some spotlight on the debate stage, in the aftermath of the rank voter suppression that denied Stacey Abrams the Georgia governorship in 2018. Abrams told The New York Times in August: “I asked two things with all the presidential nominees I’ve met with. One is that they make voter suppression their No. 1 issue. And two, that they make Georgia a top priority because it is a battleground state.”

While Buttiegieg briefly spoke about a package of voting rights bills in the House to strengthen democracy, the issue became a flashpoint on experience as Klobuchar spoke about her efforts to lead on similar legislation in the Senate.

This debate was notably the first moderated exclusively by women, and the moderators spent time exploring issues like paid family leave that the women in the race, Senators Elizabeth Warren, Harris and Klobuchar have all issued detailed plans on. 

The evening lacked the Texas flare we’ve grown accustomed to. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke dropped out of the race in early November and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro failed to qualify for the debate stage. 

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