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Election 2022 Government & Politics

Hoping for Republican Gubernatorial Debates? Don’t Hold Your Breath

Eight Democrats and four Republicans running for Maryland governor participated in a forum hosted by Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat on June 8. Screenshot photo courtesy of Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat.

The four Republicans running for governor live approximately 70 miles apart. But getting them to appear together has proven to be difficult.

The four have appeared simultaneously only once — at an online forum sponsored by Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat on June 8, which also featured Democratic candidates. Given the tortured history, it appears likely that when the July 19 primary rolls around, that event will represent the only time Dan Cox, Robin Ficker, Kelly Schulz and Joe Werner engaged in a true debate.

The lack of GOP debates isn’t for a lack of effort on the part of civic groups, media organizations and other would-be sponsors. Many have tried to draw the candidates together, so that the state’s 986,722 registered Republican voters can take stock of the candidates for themselves, only to fall short.

Two of the candidates — Cox, a state delegate, and Ficker, a former delegate and frequent candidate — have accused Schulz, the former state Commerce secretary, of ducking debates, saying she prefers to avoid unscripted and potentially adversarial settings.

The Schulz campaign has acknowledged that it isn’t keen on debates, but not for the reasons Cox and Ficker have alleged. Rather, they say it’s part of a concerted strategy to avoid propping up Cox, an  attorney endorsed by former President Trump who chartered buses to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, and who tweeted that former vice-president Mike Pence was a “traitor” during the ensuing melee at the Capitol.

“Quite frankly I think she’s been on-stage with him more than she needs to be,” said Schulz spokesman Mike Demkiw on Monday, echoing past criticisms. “He’s a lunatic. He’s a liar. He got a child rapist out of jail.”

Cox declined to respond to voice messages and emails on Monday. But in a phone interview, Ficker, the GOP’s nominee for Montgomery County executive in 2018, who has run for multiple offices over the past four decades, said Schulz doesn’t perform well in candidate forums.

“Kelly is refusing to participate in any debates,” said Ficker. “I don’t think she’s a good debater. I don’t think she can think on her feet. She’s too scripted and they don’t want her to be surprised.”

Ficker said Schulz declined invitations to take part in a Maryland Public Television/WBAL-TV debate, a WBFF-TV (Fox 45) debate, and a Maryland State Bar Association debate. He said she also rejected invitations from the Montgomery County Republican Party and to attend candidate forums in Howard, Carroll and Frederick counties.

“She’s only appeared before one Black group, one time, where she gave an opening statement. She answered one question. And then said she had to leave early and gave a closing statement,” Ficker said. “There’s never been any opportunity to question her.”

Ficker called Schulz’s rationale for refusing to appear alongside Cox “complete nonsense” and “a lie.”

Although he has accused Schulz of ducking debates, Cox’s track record is also mixed. He was a last-minute no-show at a Maryland Municipal League debate in Ocean City last week, a forum for candidates of both parties that Schulz attended. Cox also failed to attend a Maryland Association of Community Colleges forum in which Schulz participated. And although he and MPT producers arranged to do a taped interview, Cox wasn’t available at the scheduled time, the station reported. (An MPT official said he has a standing invitation to reschedule.)

MPT held a Democratic primary debate on June 6 and hoped to do a Republican debate as well. When that didn’t come together, the station decided to record one-on-one interviews with the GOP candidates instead. Those conversations aired on Friday.

Schulz offered a light recital of her stump messages, focusing on gas prices, parental “choice,” public safety and job creation. She answered an abortion access question directly, but she dodged other questions posed by host Jeff Salkin, including whether she is an “anti-Trump” Republican, whether the GOP primary contest “is close” and whether Maryland should impose a limit on the harvest of female crabs.

It was unclear why Cox did not tape a sit-down with the station.

Unlike the Republicans, Democrats have held dozens of forums and debates over the past nine months. Ficker said the GOP’s most plugged-in voters — those who participate in primaries — are the losers. “The candidates know the most difficult questions to ask the other candidates,” he said. “The public deserves to see the differences and deserves to see the reactions.”

Schulz, Cox spar over Jan. 6

The Bethesda Magazine debate — the only one to feature nearly all of the Democratic candidates and all four Republicans — offered the candidates the opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues. It also showcased some of the areas in which Schulz, who has the enthusiastic backing of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), and Cox differ.

The most notable difference centered around the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“January 6 was an insurrection on our Capitol,” she said. “It is a blight on America for what we have been able to see and hear and experience on Jan. 6. But we have moved beyond that.” She said it is important to “rebuild our party” and — in a jab at Cox — said “we do not want to continue to call our vice-presidents traitors.”

Cox replied by calling free speech “a sacred thing in America, and when we have issues before us that need to be examined, I think we need to focus on those.”

“People are concerned and fed up with politicians trying to smear one another,” he added. He declined to say whether he thought the insurrection represented an act of sedition or whether Trump was responsible for the siege.

Schulz strategist warns of Democratic ‘interference’

In a related development, a Schulz adviser warned her supporters on Monday that national Democratic groups — primarily the Democratic Governors Association — may be preparing to “interfere” in Republican primaries. In a memo that was distributed to reporters, strategist Doug Mayer highlighted news reports on DGA efforts to boost “fringe” candidates by labeling them “too conservative.”

While the ads have the feel of attack ads, the reports contend, they have the potential to hurt more moderate candidates — those with a better shot of winning in November — by boosting rivals offering a Trumpier message.

“This idea is nothing new,” wrote Mayer, a former Hogan spokesman, “but it has gained considerable steam and financial support in recent months and we have reason to believe the DGA might try something similar here in Maryland.”

DGA deputy communications director Sam Newton declined to say whether the organization is planning to run pro-Cox ads in Maryland. In a statement, he said “it’s telling that [Schulz’s] campaign is already looking for excuses.”

“Instead of pointing fingers and lashing out at pollsters, she should stop dodging debates and answer for her radical record like pushing a total ban on abortion and trying to strip funding from public schools to fund private schools,” Newton said, referring to Schulz’s support for charter schools and abortion restrictions while serving in the House of Delegates. In the MPT interview, Schulz said “nothing will change” in Maryland on abortion policy if Roe vs Wade is overturned and she pledged robust support for public education.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include the Maryland Association of Community Colleges forum and to clarify why Dan Cox didn’t appear on Maryland Public Television last Friday