Kathy Szeliga, Chris Van Hollen at odds over Senate debates

The two leading candidates for Maryland's open Senate seat appear to be at an impasse in their negotiation over a debate schedule, with Republican Kathy Szeliga's campaign preparing to accept debate invitations unilaterally.

Szeliga, a state lawmaker from Baltimore County and the underdog in Maryland, offered to attend six debates in the Baltimore and Washington media markets, a campaign spokeswoman said. Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen has so far agreed to two of those debates -- both in Baltimore -- the spokeswoman said.

"Our team sat down with the Van Hollen team to discuss debates but unfortunately we couldn’t come to an agreement," Szeliga campaign spokeswoman Leslie Shedd said in a statement. "Kathy wanted to participate in at least six debates. ... Congressman Van Hollen preferred to keep it to two debates," she said. "That was simply not acceptable to Kathy and our team.

A Van Hollen spokeswoman described negotiations as ongoing, and accused Szeliga's campaign of acting "in bad faith" and resorting to "Trump-like attacks" rather than continuing the talks. The spokeswoman said the debate schedule has not been finalized.

"It's unfortunate that the Szeliga campaign is acting in bad faith by engaging in Trump-like attacks in the press instead of returning our calls to continue those negotiations," spokeswoman Bridgett Frey said in a statement. "Congressman Van Hollen participated in all nine debates and forums during the Democratic primary, and he looks forward to continuing that conversation with voters this fall."

The public back-and-forth over debates is common, but it represents a departure from the Democratic primary, when aides to Van Hollen and Rep. Donna F. Edwards negotiated for months without any media attention. The two Democrats met on stage nine times, including four debates that were broadcast by radio or television stations.

At the time, polls indicated a tight race between Van Hollen and Edwards. In the general election, by contrast, Szeliga faces more significant challenges -- including the two-to-one advantage Democrats enjoy in party enrollment.

A source close to the Szeliga campaign said more than a dozen media outlets and third-party groups have invited the candidates to a forum or debate. The person said the campaign is making plans to accept at least seven of those invitations.

The Van Hollen campaign said only two invitations have been made by broadcast television outlets -- and that they offered to agree to both. 

If Szeliga agrees to debates unilaterally it would force the Van Hollen campaign to either attend those meetings or risk criticism from Szeliga. On the other hand, a debate with only one major party candidate will draw far less interest than those involving both candidates.

Green Party candidate Dr. Margaret Flowers has for months been pressing for more debates -- and for third party candidates such as herself to be included.

The candidates are running for the seat that will be left open next year by the retirement of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat.