Two challengers to U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin criticized him Sunday for failing to solve a range of problems during 52 years in public office as the candidates met in the sole televised debate of the campaign.
Republican nominee Tony Campbell and independent candidate Neal Simon portrayed the incumbent Democrat as a contributor to what they say is partisan rancor dominating Washington. But Cardin emphasized the times he has worked with Republican colleagues to achieves such outcomes as preserving federal aid for cleaning the Chesapeake Bay.
The hour-long debate at WBFF-TV in Baltimore showcased the diametrically opposed views of Cardin and Campbell on many major issues and in their attitudes toward President Donald Trump. Simon, meanwhile, sought to position himself as a man in the middle who would stand above the partisan fray and help restore civility to American political life.
The first question from the moderator, WBFF anchor Jennifer Gilbert, went to the heart of the most bitterly contested issue of recent weeks — the Senate confirmation Saturday of Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cardin proudly defended his “no” vote on Kavanaugh.
“I don’t believe he’ll be an impartial voice on this Supreme Court of the United States to protect your rights against the powerful,” Cardin said. He criticized as “just outrageous” Trump’s disparaging comments about the actions of a woman who accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her 36 years ago in Maryland.
Campbell said he would have voted for Kavanaugh and criticized Democrats for “using people’s pain for political gain.”
Simon said he would have voted “no” but accused both parties of contributing to divisiveness — Republicans for refusing to consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, and Democrats for not coming forward sooner with the confidential allegations Christine Blasey Ford brought to them about Kavanaugh.
“I think the Steelers and Ravens are nicer to each other than the people in the United States Senate,” Simon said.
Campbell and Simon repeatedly brought up Cardin’s long tenure in public office, charging that he should have done more on such issues as Baltimore’s crime rate and the poor performance of the city’s schools. Cardin replied that as a federal lawmaker, he believes his role is to help local officials such as Baltimore’s mayor get the support they need, but not to tell them how to do their jobs.
Trump played a central role in the debate, with Cardin calling for a strong Senate to stand up to him. Campbell, meanwhile, did not seek to distance himself from the president, as Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has done. Instead, he strongly endorsed some of Trump’s signature policies, including building a wall on the Mexican border and reducing the role of the U.S. Department of Education in local affairs.
Simon said he did not vote for Trump but agreed with some of his actions, including moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Asked about guns, Cardin unequivocally urged a federal ban on private ownership of what he called “military-style assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines. Campbell emphasized that “we need to protect the Second Amendment.”
Simon said Congress should rally around ideas that could achieve a bipartisan consensus, such as keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists and those with mental health problems, as well as banning bump stocks, devices that speed the rate of fire of a weapon.
The civil debate brought few memorable lines, but Simon tried with a quip that two of the greatest perils to the United States were “Donald Trump’s tweets and Ben Cardin’s rubber stamp.”
The topic of North Korea brought another stark disagreement between Campbell and Cardin. The Republican praised Trump’s overtures to North Korea and his summit with that country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
“Look at what he’s done in the past two years,” Campbell said. “He’s certainly brought North Korea to the table.”
Cardin said Trump had gotten nothing concrete in exchange and dismissed the meeting as a photo opportunity.
Cardin, 75, is one of the longest-serving political figures in Maryland history. First elected to the House of Delegates in 1966 at 23, he became speaker in 1979 and led that body for two four-year terms. He won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and served there for 20 years before moving up to the Senate.
Campbell, if he wins, would be Maryland’s first African-American senator. The 52-year-old former Army chaplain is a longtime Republican activist who teaches political science part-time at Towson University and serves on a commission that nominates school board members in Baltimore County.
Simon, 50, is on a leave of absence as chief executive officer of the wealth management firm Bronfman Rothschild. He serves as chairman of the Greater Washington Community Foundation, which donates to charitable causes in that region. He said Sunday after the debate that if he is elected, he would not caucus with either party.
During his closing statement, Simon called for two more debates.
Campbell expressed regret that a second would not be held. But Cardin said there would be no more before the Nov. 6 election.
After the debate, Cardin shrugged off his opponents’ repeated suggestions that he had been in office too long. “I think experience is important,” he said. “I think the president of the United States has demonstrated that.”
The Cook Political Report rates the race as “Solid Democratic.” In a Goucher Poll last month, Cardin led with 56 percent, with 17 percent for Campbell and 8 percent for Simon.
WBFF will air the debate Saturday at 5 p.m.