Five Republican candidates for Maryland's open Senate seat will participate in a debate Thursday at Goucher College, but the presumed frontrunner in the race for the GOP nomination -- Del. Kathy Szeliga -- is sitting the event out to attend a state party fundraiser.
The debate is the first scheduled for either party in the high-profile race to replace Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who is retiring next year. The two leading Democratic candidates for the seat have been negotiating for months without announcing a schedule of debates.
Goucher College announced late Tuesday that five GOP candidates will participate in the event: Former Pentagon official Richard Douglas, who ran unsuccessfully for the nomination in 2012, former state attorney Chrys Kefalas, Greg Holmes, Joseph Hooe, and Dave Wallace.
But it is Szeliga's absence that is just as noteworthy as the candidates who have agreed to take part. Szeliga, the House Minority Whip, has locked down support from many of the state party's best-known figures, raised significantly more money in recent months and led in a Baltimore Sun-University of Baltimore poll last year.
Campaign spokesman Jonathan Wetzel said Szeliga could not attend the debate because she had already committed to appear at the Governor's Ball, a fundraiser for the Maryland Republican Party that is taking place on the same night. Former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is expected to speak at that event.
"Kathy made a commitment to support Governor Ehrlich and the Maryland Republican Party at the Governor's Ball that night and will regrettably not be able to attend this debate," Wetzel said in a statement. "Kathy looks forward to participating in future debates."
The Goucher debate will not be covered live by television or radio outlets, and therefore won't have the same reach as a debate that is broadcast. On the other hand, Republicans face an incredibly steep cliff in trying to wrest the seat away from Democrats in deeply blue Maryland this year, and it's not clear whether any of the future GOP debates -- assuming some materialize -- will be broadcast.
The debate will be moderated by WBAL radio hosts Derek Hunter and Clarence M. Mitchell IV. Hunter plans to air portions of the debate on his radio program the following the day.
Democratic Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards, meanwhile, have been negotiating debates for four-and-a-half months and have yet to announce a single meeting. Edwards called for six debates, evenly split between the Baltimore and Washington media markets. Van Hollen said he would like more debates, but never stipulated a number.
Maryland's primary is April 26. Early voting begins April 14.