Dispatch from Stonehill: So – When Is There Going To Be A Republican Senate Debate?

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As showcased all throughout the Town Hall Tea Party Era a few years ago, Massachusetts is hardly immune to right-wing buffoonery. Our crackers are every bit as clueless as flag-waving imbeciles elsewhere; as for elected officials, until recently we had a Republican in Washington who tossed Wall Street's salad in the Senate steam room every chance he got. We're not Texas – nor will we ever be. But one only needs to check the Mass politics hashtag to sample the relentless idiocy that some New England conservatives promulgate in the name of loathing liberals, and little else.

Fortunately, none of that cheap political barbarism was on display at Tuesday's Republican Senate debate in Easton. From the moment that the three GOP hopefuls delivered opening remarks to the filled Stonehill College auditorium – to the candid interviews that they all gave to reporters afterwards – former US Attorney Michael Sullivan, Cohasset businessman and former NAVY SEAL Gabriel Gomez, and Norfolk State Rep Dan Winslow were all business and no bullshit. A reality show to see who's the kookiest hyper-partisan post-Palin screwball it wasn't.

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Instead of a clown show, the crowd got a considerably thorough glimpse at how the candidates contrast and align on a number of issues. The questioners – Adam Reilly of WGBH, Channel 5 Senior Reporter Janet Wu, and Chris Burrell from the Patriot Ledger – covered most bases, from the economy and immigration on to civil liberties. Likewise, Stonehill College political science professor Peter Ubertassio – who also blogs at – moved the debate along steadily and avoided lagging on any single issue.

The resulting concert performance was a somewhat shocking display of respectable Yankee conservatism. There were no birther claims or swipes at community organizers; refreshingly, none of the candidates agreed with the statement, made recently by Fox News overlord and human Whoopee Cushion Roger Ailes, that President Obama is “lazy.” While the show was certainly a disappointment for anyone who hoped to catch a race to the bitter bottom, the debate was a stark reminder of why the Commonwealth occasionally backs the red team – because some of the time, they're not all that crazy.

On the economy, Gomez stated that he'd work with Senator Elizabeth Warren to fight Wall Street corruption. “I don't believe that any bank is too big to fail or too big to prosecute,” he punched, causing a few audience members to confusedly intimate to one another: “DID HE JUST FUCKING SAY WHAT I THINK HE JUST SAID?” Other WTF moments came when Sullivan revealed that his all-time favorite US Senator from Mass is JFK, and when Winslow complained that people who peddle dope get worse sentences than stock swindlers. In Massachusetts or anyplace else, the latter is a topic that even Dems don't typically touch.

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If there was an audience for this debate outside of GOP circles, it could probably be found in moderates and even liberals who found the slightest shred of hope in Kentucky Senator Rand Paul's 13-hour filibuster spiel last week. Winslow gave props to Paul every chance he got, and in addition to opposing drone strikes on American citizens, the state rep also jumped on other ideas that ought to have universal appeal. “Sequestration,” said Winslow, “is Exhibit A of what's wrong with Washington.” The former district court judge went on to lambaste the justice system for its demonstrable overzealousness, citing several times the case of Aaron Swartz, the MIT wiz and internet pioneer who took his own life rather than continue facing federal heat.

Sullivan was less willing to criticize the government, and also a lot less likely to make a lefty smile than were Winslow or Gomez. A former US prosecutor and acting ATF director under George W. Bush, Sullivan conceded that weak party outreach was to blame for Scott Brown's loss to Warren; he also offered a sensible approach to curbing gun violence that would outrage NRA hard-liners. But that's as far as he bent. As Winslow pounced on the broken criminal gauntlet that he was once a part of – even going so far as to say that courts are racially discriminatory – Sullivan couldn't quite take himself to criticize current US Attorney Carmen Ortiz for the Swartz persecution, or to pledge that he would tag team with Warren to wrestle big banks to the mat. Sullivan also waffled on Roe v. Wade, and on a question about the recent discovery that issue statements on his website had been lifted wholesale from the page for former State Senator Richard Tisei's failed congressional bid. “This has been a fast-moving campaign,” said Sullivan, suggesting that the fumble was no big deal since he happens to agree with the positions.

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Though Sullivan performed reasonably well, he did have those few awkward moments. As for the young Gomez – he's still a bit rough around the issues for this late in the game; the primary is on April 30. All things considered, Winslow emerged as the clear winner. His knowledge of the social security system rang eloquently; he committed to the realistic promise of helping unclog the judicial appointment process by casting an up or down vote on every court nomination. Irrationally, Winslow seems to think that “porous borders” are central to the immigration problem, and he's not likely to win much Latino support with his firm position against amnesty. But even on citizenship, Winslow offered a healthy, human argument without race-baiting or pandering to bigots.

After the disaster of Scott Brown, it's unlikely that many conscientious middle-of-the-road Democrats will consider voting for anybody other than whichever donkey wins the primary. For that and other reasons, things don't look good for Republicans in this race; most damningly, while Gomez is a stud, neither Sullivan nor Winslow is hunky enough to corner the man-crush vote that Brown won from closeted macho men with Truck Nutz and chipped shoulders. Still, the quasi-populist, apparently responsible conservative values that were trumpeted at Stonehill indicate that the special Senate race has a chance of being an intellectually vigorous showdown. It's probably just a matter of days until the candidates begin attacking one another's family members, but in the meantime, a bit of pride and sportsmanship is certainly a welcome change around here.

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