Candidate Debates Become Sticking Point in Pennsylvania’s Governor and Senate Races

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Campaign season is about to kick into high gear, as it normally does after Labor Day. By now, candidate debates are usually scheduled. But there are still questions about how debates will play out in Pennsylvania’s top two races—for governor and U.S. Senate.

Race for Governor

Republican gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Doug Mastriano will not participate in debates hosted by legacy media, a spokesman from the campaign confirmed. He has another plan that he believes will be more fair.

Mastriano’s campaign sent a letter on Aug. 16 to Democrat candidate Attorney General Josh Shapiro, proposing the two campaigns work together to put on a debate.

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Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Attorney General Josh Shapiro spoke in Pittsburgh about his office’s continued commitment to protect abortion access for women. July 14, 2022. (Commonwealth Media Service)

“Like you, I have received many invitations from media outlets and civic organizations to participate in gubernatorial debates,” Mastriano wrote. “While I believe that debates can offer a valuable service to Pennsylvania voters, that’s only if they are conducted fairly. Typically, Republican statewide candidates fall prey to the trap of debates that are effectively a two-against-one matchup, in which the mainstream media who moderate the debates, are unpaid advocates and ideological allies of the Democrat candidates.”

Mastriano said he welcomes a debate, but will only participate if it’s a fair fight.

Mastriano proposes two 90-minute debates in October. Each candidate chooses one location. Each debate would have two moderators, with each candidate choosing one. The moderators would be allowed an equal number of questions asked of each candidate. The topics can be open-ended with no limits, Mastriano wrote.

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Doug Mastriano, Republican member of the Pennsylvania Senate, speaks at the “Let the Church ROAR” National Prayer Rally on the National Mall in Washington on Dec. 12, 2020. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Instead of an exclusive broadcast arrangement with specific media outlets, these debates would be open to media for live broadcasting and streaming. Mastriano proposes the two campaigns or state parties split costs for production and venue rentals.

“While I am sure there are other details to be worked out amicably between our campaign teams, my proposal should make it clear that I am eager to debate you on a level playing field,” Mastriano wrote. “The old model of unfair debates run by the mainstream news media or hosts with a hidden partisan agenda is not something I will entertain. Let’s have fair debates, or none at all.”

The Epoch Times has asked Shapiro’s campaign several times in recent weeks if he intends to participate in debates. Shapiro’s camp has not answered that question, but it did respond to Mastriano’s letter.

“Doug Mastriano’s unserious proposal is an obvious stunt to avoid any real questions about his extreme agenda and record of conduct by dictating his own rules for debates,” Shapiro’s campaign spokesperson, Will Simons, told The Epoch Times. “Mastriano has spent his entire campaign refusing to answer questions from local outlets across Pennsylvania–refusing to leave his echo chamber of extremists on alt-right media.”

Pennsylvania media outlets and moderators ask candidates of both parties fair, direct questions and nobody gets to pick their own moderators or set their own terms Simons said.

“It’s unfortunate that Doug Mastriano has recklessly decided to blow up good-faith debate negotiations with media outlets across the commonwealth,” Simons said. “If he’s ever ready to step up and finally answer questions about his reckless agenda, we look forward to comparing Josh Shapiro’s long record of bringing people together and delivering results for Pennsylvanians with Mastriano’s record of dangerous extremism.”

Senate Race

Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, has agreed to five televised debates across Pennsylvania—hosted by KDKA Pittsburgh on Sept. 6; WFMZ and the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, Sept. 9; Nexstar, Oct. 5.; FOX 29 Philadelphia in partnership with Spotlight PA; and WGAL NBC, Harrisburg.

John Fetterman
John Fetterman fills out his emergency absentee ballot for the Pennsylvania primary election in Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital in Lancaster, Pa., on May, 17, 2022. (Bobby Maggio via AP)

John Fetterman, Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate has not yet made debate plans public. Fetterman’s spokesman, Joe Calvello, recently told The New York Times that Fetterman planned to debate Oz but did not commit to a specific number of debates. The Epoch Times reached out to Calvello for comment.

Fetterman returned to the campaign trail this week after suffering a stroke just before the May primary. The stroke left him sometimes reaching for words, he has said in interviews. That could have an effect on how he would perform in a debate.

Ordinarily, once an invitation is accepted on both sides, debate hosts let both parties know the date is set, and then go to work negotiating terms of the debate with candidates, such as the length of the debate, and whether they will sit or stand at podiums. These discussions go back and forth, sometimes vigorously, until parties agree.

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Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz greets supporters after the primary race resulted in an automatic recount due to close results in Newtown, Pa., on May 17, 2022. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

But with the first debate planned for Sept. 6, about three weeks away, the Oz campaign says it has not heard of any confirmation or discussions.

“There’s usually a pretty robust process to agree to a debate,” Rachel Tripp, a senior communications adviser to Oz, told The Epoch Times. “To be working with the media hosts on the logistics of a debate and have John Fetterman’s campaign be radio silent just neuters the process. John Fetterman’s lack of participation is robbing voters of their right to hear their candidates’ answers to the tough questions.”

“Debate is a crucial part of the democratic process. Voters deserve to be exposed to the differences and nuances of each candidate’s policies,” Tripp said. “The best way to do that is through multiple debates for different audiences across the Commonwealth. It’s not right for voters to have to go into the voting booth without having heard from the candidates directly.”

Beth Brelje

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Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering Pennsylvania politics, courts, and the commonwealth’s most interesting and sometimes hidden news. Send her your story ideas: Beth.brelje@epochtimes.us