For an hour on Sunday afternoon, the three top candidates for U.S. Senate on November’s ballot met on a soundstage in Baltimore, each promising a different approach for a six-year term.
Independent candidate Neal Simon, a wealthy business executive from Potomac, cast himself as beyond party affiliations and a fresh choice for voters, mentioning several times incumbent Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin’s decades-long tenure in elected office. Simon repeatedly faulted both political parties for acrimony in Washington, D.C., and stagnation on important policy issues like health care.
Republican Tony Campbell, a political science professor at Towson University and longtime GOP activist, held the party line on several issues, voicing his support for President Trump and his policies, including a border wall with Mexico. Left to right: Republican Senate nominee Tony Campbell, U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) and independent candidate Neal Simon.
For his part, Cardin, a two-term senator who got his start in politics 52 years ago, underscored past successes in the Senate, and noted that his consistent disagreements with the Trump administration have not hampered his attempts to work with Republican colleagues on bipartisan issues.
“You need to be able to get things done in the chaotic environment we have with President Trump,” Cardin said. “And I’ve been able to do that.”
In a debate moderated by Jennifer Gilbert, a Fox 45 anchor, the candidates worked their way through 10 questions, providing one-minute answers followed by 30-second rebuttals and rarely challenging the time limits.
Cardin explained his “no” vote on the confirmation of newly-sworn Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, while Campbell said he would have voted in favor of the nomination.
Simon said he would have voted against Kavanaugh because he did not demonstrate the proper character and temperament for a justice but added that political leaders on both sides of the aisle have sullied the judicial confirmation process.
When asked about recent mass shootings in Maryland and around the country, Campbell said that police need resources to investigate all people who are credible threats and remove their guns, but that residents also should have a right to gun ownership for protection. Campbell also lamented that too many Americans have lost the value of the “sanctity of life.”
Cardin said he would support universal background checks for firearms purchases, a national law to prohibit private ownership of military-style assault weapons and greater investment in mental health.
Simon said the parties in Washington are too entrenched to address the issue. He would support universal background checks, mental health background checks and banning bump stocks.
While Simon accused the Senate of “doing nothing,” Cardin said efforts at gun reform have been blocked by Republican leadership in Congress.
Simon attempted a few zingers during the debate, including in response to a question about the Trump administration’s efforts to denuclearize North Korea.
Cardin said he strongly supported diplomacy in the effort and called it “the only sensible way to end the nuclear crisis in North Korea.”
However, Cardin said Trump’s efforts have amounted to photo opportunities with little substance, while he and members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations have worked to pass bipartisan legislation including sanctions for North Korea’s violations of international commitments.
Briefly, at the start of his response, Simon said he supported diplomatic efforts as well, before moving on to another issue. “I think the greatest threat to our country, though, is, in a way, ourselves. It’s the partisanship and divisiveness. It’s leaders in our government who are pulling us apart and the followers who follow them. …They’re pitting us against each other: man versus woman, rich versus poor, black versus white, left versus right,” Simon said. “…So I guess I think the greatest threats for us are President Trump’s Twitter account and Sen. Cardin’s rubber stamp.”
Cardin stood quietly to the far right of Simon, before eventually cracking a smile when Campbell started to speak.
“Well, that’s a great line, Neal. Man, I was, geez, you just knocked that out of the park,” Campbell started out.
On the substance of the question, Campbell said that Trump “has really done a good job” dealing with North Korea. “Look at what he’s done in the last two years. He’s actually brought North Korea to the table. He’s actually started reunification talks between North Korea and South Korea,” Campbell said. “If this would have been any other president, especially one with a ‘D’ beside its name, he would have the Nobel Peace Prize by now.”
On health care, Simon said he would focus on fixing the Affordable Care Act to incentivize wellness over repealing the law or moving toward a Medicare for All system, which he characterized as “socialized medicine.”
Cardin said he supported a Medicare-type public option within state health care exchanges and new laws to address pharmaceutical costs. Campbell said he opposed Medicare for All in light of the federal government’s failures at maintaining veterans’ health care programs.
During closing remarks, Cardin rattled off a list of what he considered his successes in the Senate, including bipartisan agreements to retain funding for Chesapeake Bay protection in the face of a zeroed-out budget from the Trump administration and other efforts with Republican colleagues including the late Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Simon said he hoped the candidates would meet at least two more times for a debate before Election Day and said he would be available “anytime, anywhere.” Simon accused Cardin of following party leaders who contribute to the ongoing partisan brawl in Washington and said he would stay out of the fray.
Campbell said Cardin has been in politics too long and touted his own connection with the state of Maryland and city of Baltimore.
In the most recent public polling, Cardin has maintained a healthy lead in the race. According to a Goucher Poll conducted in mid-September, 56 percent of Maryland likely voters said they would vote for Cardin, while 17 percent said they planned to vote for Campbell and 8 percent supported Simon. At the time, 14 percent of voters said they were still undecided.
The debate is archived online at https://wjla.com/news/local/a-your-voice-your-future-maryland-us-senate-debate.