BALTIMORE — The presidential race took center stage in a televised debate Wednesday as Maryland’s two Senate candidates sparred over health care, the economy and whether a woman should succeed retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.).
U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) and state Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) each excoriated the presidential nominees of their opponent’s party, with Van Hollen calling Donald Trump unprepared and unqualified and Szeliga slamming Hillary Clinton’s use of personal emails, her unflattering description of Trump supporters and her management of donations to the Clinton Foundation.
A separate round of fireworks erupted before the barbs from the major-party candidates, when Green Party nominee Margaret Flowers planted herself on stage and demanded to be included in the event.
Police hustled Flowers out of the University of Baltimore auditorium by her arm, but her supporters in the crowd continued to shout at debate organizers and participants, delaying the start time by about 20 minutes.
When the action got underway, Szeliga and Van Hollen struck starkly different tones. Szeliga, the minority whip of the Maryland House of Delegates, peppered her answers with personal details, including her mom’s beehive hairdo and cat eye glasses.
Van Hollen, a state lawmaker from Montgomery County before being elected to the U.S. House in 2002, demonstrated the dispassionate demeanor of a sitting congressman well-versed in public policy.
Van Hollen is heavily favored in the majority-Democratic state. Recent polls show him ahead of Szeliga by about 30 points, and Clinton leading Trump by a similar margin.
The Senate candidates exchanged sharp words when asked if voters should worry that the election could produce Maryland's first all-male congressional delegation since 1973.
Van Hollen, who said he supports pay equity and abortion rights, touted endorsements from the Women’s Chamber of Commerce, the National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood.
“Senator Mikulski, I can assure you, would not have supported me if she didn’t think that I would be continuing that fight,” he said.
Szeliga shot back: “I can tell you what women love, and that’s when people man-splain things to us about what women want and need,” she said.
Then she quoted a line from outgoing U.S. Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D), who lost to Van Hollen in last spring’s bitter Democratic primary: “What a shame it would be if Maryland’s delegation did not have a women representing them.”
The debate at the University of Baltimore was co-sponsored by WJZ-TV, the CBS affiliate in Baltimore, and was scheduled to be broadcast by the station Wednesday evening.
Szeliga tried to play up her deep Maryland ties, calling herself a “Baltimore hon” and an independent voice, and saying that she has criticized Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, “on many occasions.”
“My opponent has failed to call out his party’s nominee,” she said.
Van Hollen said Clinton was one of the most prepared and qualified candidates to be president, while Trump was one of the least. The congressman said he broke with Clinton over her support for the war in Iraq and opposed “her decision on emails.”
But, he said, unlike Trump, Clinton knows how to apologize for her mistakes.
“Donald Trump has run a campaign trying to pit Americans against one other based on race and religion and ethnicity and gender,” Van Hollen said.
Szeliga, who supported Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and then former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina in the GOP primary, has said she will vote for Trump but has also condemned his lewd remarks about women.
When she noted during the debate that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) had endorsed her Senate bid, Van Hollen quickly reminded the crowd that, unlike Szeliga, Hogan is not supporting Trump.
On the Affordable Care Act, Van Hollen — a chief pitchman for President Obama’s plans in the House — echoed Democrats’ message that the health-care system is not perfect but should be amended, rather than discarded: “Fix it? Yes. Throw it out? No.”
He noted most Americans get health care through private insurers — where he said premiums have gone down compared with plans offered on HealthCare.gov, where premiums for the most popular plans have jumped an average of 25 percent.
Szeliga said she agreed with former president Bill Clinton, who gave Republicans an instant talking point earlier this month when he critiqued Obamacare as “the craziest thing in the world,” before walking back the comment.
Van Hollen countered that Trump blundered this week when he said his employees were facing the huge premiums associated with the ACA, even though his workers do not participate in the health insurance exchanges.
Before the debate, when Flowers demanded to participate, both Van Hollen and Szeliga said they would be fine having her on stage.
“I add a lot to the discussion,” Flowers said. “How does this serve the public when I’m on the ballot?”
But officials said the debate rules did not allow Flowers to participate, because polls show she does not have the minimum required support of 15 percent of likely voters.