The leading candidates for Maryland’s open Senate seat sparred over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and attacked each other’s voting records during their first debate Friday.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who held a 29-point lead in a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, tried several times to tie his opponent to Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Maryland.
Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County), minority whip in Maryland’s House of Delegates, distanced herself from Trump and reminded listeners that she has been endorsed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), whose approval ratings have soared since he took office last year.
Unlike Hogan, who says he will not vote for Trump, Szeliga has said she will support her party’s nominee. But she split with Trump on two issues Friday, saying he should release his tax returns and that she does not support building a wall between the United States and Mexico even though she wants to secure the border.
Szeliga accused Van Hollen of accepting thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Trump, but the congressman countered that the money was actually given to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee years ago, when he was chairman of the group.
The Republican candidate also criticized her opponent for backing the Iran nuclear deal, calling his position “a big difference between the two of us.” Van Hollen said the agreement will help prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and noted that some Israeli military leaders have supported the pact.
Both candidates promised to look out for military veterans and the middle class while continuing the legacy of retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D), who has held the seat for three decades.
Van Hollen said he would “make sure that hardworking Marylanders get a fair shake,” in part by focusing on education investments, reducing the burden of college debt and increasing the minimum wage. He criticized Szeliga for voting against state legislation that incrementally increases the state minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 by 2018.
“It is a scandal in this country that you can work full time — 40 hours a week and all year long — and be below the federal poverty level for a family of two,” he said.
Van Hollen said he supports increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour but that he backs Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s plan for bumping the rate to $12 first.
Szeliga, who runs a construction business with her husband, argued that increasing the minimum wage would be a job-killer for youths, noting that fewer than 4 percent of employees work at or below the rate and that most of them are younger than age 20.
The GOP candidate said she would work to control spending and taxes while serving as an independent voice who is not beholden to special interests. She rattled off a list of low-wage jobs she worked in the past, including washing dishes, cleaning hotel rooms and making doughnuts.
“I can tell you what people on minimum wage want — they want a career,” she said. “They’re tired of career politicians taking an issue like this and ginning people up with it. Let’s get people jobs and opportunities . . . so they’re on a career ladder.”
Szeliga also slammed Van Hollen for voting against the Veterans Affairs Accountability Act, a bipartisan measure aimed at addressing problems associated with a scandal over treatment delays and falsification of scheduling records. Many Democrats opposed the legislation, saying its firing provisions would roll back civil-service protections and discourage talented professionals from joining the VA.
Van Hollen, who picked up an endorsement from Veterans and Military Families for Progress on Friday, pointed out that he helped secure federal funds for ending veteran homelessness in Montgomery County and for helping veterans launch small businesses.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure our vets get the support they need,” he said. “It’s always disturbing when people try to use vets for political purposes.”
Friday’s debate on WAMU-FM’s Kojo Nnamdi Show was the second of five events that Van Hollen and Szeliga have agreed to attend together, including a forum last month hosted by AARP and the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. They are also scheduled to take part in an Oct. 8 forum hosted by the group African Americans in Howard County; debate Oct. 26 on WJZ-TV, the CBS affiliate in Baltimore; and participate in another forum on Oct. 30 in Friendship Heights.
Margaret Flowers, a Green Party candidate for the Senate seat, was not invited to Friday’s debate because her poll numbers were below WAMU’s 10 percent threshold for participation.
Szeliga has pinned her campaign hopes on the idea that Marylanders are becoming more centrist and disappointed with Democratic leaders, based largely on the fact that Hogan, a straight-talking businessman, won the governorship in 2014.
But she faces steep odds of pulling of a Hogan-like election upset in a state where 63 percent of residents have an unfavorable impressions of her party and registered Democrats outnumber Republican voters 2 to 1.
Clinton leads Trump 63 percent to 27 percent among likely voters in the state.
Van Hollen’s campaign has more than twice as much money in the bank as Szeliga’s campaign, which reported $255,000 cash on hand at the end of June.
Szeliga this week finished a two-week run of campaign commercials that aired statewide on Fox News Channel. Van Hollen has not aired ads since defeating Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) in the primary.
But the GOP candidate still faces a gaping deficit in support among Marylanders, trailing the congressman 58 percent to 29 percent in the Post-U-Md. poll, which was conducted Sept. 27 to Sept. 30.
Szeliga put Van Hollen on the spot with her closing remarks by challenging him to agree to more debates, accusing him of avoiding such contests.
The congressman said he had agreed to a televised debate and another radio debate that has not been officially scheduled.
Szeliga persisted with her line of attack, saying Van Hollen is still dodging her.
“You will not commit,” she said, “He does not want to debate me on TV.”