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Kathy Szeliga, Chris Van Hollen clash in only televised Senate debate

Green Party candidate Margaret Flowers takes Senate debate stage and demands to be included.

Republican Kathy Szeliga and Democrat Chris Van Hollen clashed over the economy, Obamacare and the polarizing presidential race on Wednesday during what is likely to be the only televised debate in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

In a testy debate — Szeliga accused Van Hollen of "mansplaining" and Van Hollen repeatedly characterized Szeliga's positions as out of step with the state — the rivals offered broadly contrasting visions for how to move the country forward.

Before the debate got underway, Green Party candidate Margaret Flowers climbed onto the stage at the University of Baltimore and demanded to be included.

Flowers, who did not meet the 15 percent polling threshold set by organizers to participate in the debate, has pressed to be a part of earlier forums and has staged similar interruptions.

University of Baltimore police officers took her by the arm and escorted her out.

"How do you serve democracy or serve the public if I'm excluded?" she asked. "This is how you're treating a candidate?"

The divisive contest between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump has never been far from the state's Senate contest, and the candidates quickly got into a back-and-forth over the top-ballot brawl that will draw most voters to the polls on Nov. 8.

"I think we need to stand up to the outrageous, divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump," said Van Hollen, a seven-term congressman from Montgomery County. "My opponent is supporting probably the most unqualified person for president."

Szeliga, the minority whip in the Maryland House of Delegates, has endorsed the Republican nominee but has condemned many of his more controversial statements. The Baltimore County woman said she has provided an "independent voice" on his candidacy.

She called on Van Hollen to speak out against Clinton over her use of a private email server and questions about her family's foundation.

"There you go again, Congressman Van Hollen," responded Szeliga. "I have called my party's nominee out on many occasions, just as I've called out Hillary Clinton on many occasions."

The two candidates disagreed on how to address the Affordable Care Act, the subject of negative attention this week with the news that large premium increases are expected for many people who buy insurance through the law's online marketplaces.

Van Hollen, echoing Clinton, said he supports a so-called public option, funded by the government, which he said would increase competition with private insurers.

"Fix it? Yes," Van Hollen said. "Throw it out? No."

Szeliga said she wants the free market to have more influence on federal health policy, but she did not elaborate. She said she supports medical tort reform, an idea Republicans unsuccessfully sought to include during the debate over the national health care law.

"The Affordable Care Act has turned out to be anything but affordable," Szeliga said.

With the retirement of Mikulski and the departure of Rep. Donna F. Edwards, who lost to Van Hollen in the Democratic primary for Mikulski's seat, Maryland could be represented in Washington by an all-male congressional delegation next year for the first time in decades.

In a pointed exchange on that possibility, Szeliga accused Van Hollen of "mansplaining" to voters about "what women want and need."

Prior to that charge, Van Hollen was noting his endorsements from national women's groups and pointing to his support for Hillary Clinton.

"What a shame it would be if Maryland [voters] did not have a woman representing them in Washington," Szeliga said. It was a line Edwards of Prince George's County used frequently against Van Hollen in the primary this year.

Van Hollen offered a response that he often relied on against Edwards this year: that he has been a champion for causes supported by many women. Van Hollen won a majority of women voters during the primary, according to exit polls.

"I hear them saying they want somebody who has been fighting for their values and priorities," Van Hollen said. "That what I've been doing my entire time in office."

Szeliga criticized Van Hollen for seeking a promotion to the Senate after what she characterized as inaction on tax reform and backlogs at Department of Veterans Affairs.

She also tried to link Van Hollen to Maryland's "rain tax," the unpopular stormwater fee approved in 2012 in an effort to reduce the flow of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay.

The effort to tie Van Hollen to former Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, who supported the tax, is not something Szeliga has attempted frequently. O'Malley was popular during his two terms in Annapolis, but voter frustration over taxes approved by his administration is thought to be one of the reasons GOP Gov. Larry Hogan scored his upset victory over O'Malley's lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown, in 2014.

Van Hollen attacked Szeliga over a voting record in the General Assembly that has included opposition to gun control and to decriminalizing marijuana possession.

Goucher College political scientist Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center, described Szeliga as a "skilled debater" who came across as "genuine, warm, and confident."

Van Hollen, she said, "is clearly a policy wonk cut from the Clinton cloth" and knows the issues cold.

Kromer watched the event live.

"Honestly, I think that voters would have really benefited from more of these televised debates," she said.

With less than two weeks to go until the election, there is little sign of movement in the race. Three polls have indicated that Van Hollen was leading Szeliga by about 30 points, and the Democratic nominee has more than four times the campaign cash on hand.

Szeliga has faced the traditional challenges that confront Republican candidates in Maryland, including a 2-1 disadvantage in voter enrollment. This year, Szeliga must also contend with Trump, who polls have shown is deeply unpopular in the state.

The debate, sponsored by The Baltimore Sun, WJZ-TV, the University of Baltimore and the Maryland League of Women Voters, is the only televised exchange scheduled for the race. The forum was recorded before a live audience Wednesday afternoon and broadcast Wednesday evening on WJZ-TV. It can also be seen at baltimoresun.com.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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