As Marylanders prepare to make their choice for the next governor, Democrat Wes Moore and Republican Dan Cox both say they’re prepared to go on TV to debate the key issues.
But it’s still not clear how many times the two will face off.
“I’m looking forward to the time when my opponent and I will be able to stand on stage together and be able to debate our vision and values,” Moore told reporters recently.
He continued: “I think the moment that people get a chance to hear us together articulate our vastly different visions for the state and where the state’s going to go, I think more and more people will understand and will come on to our side.”
Cox said in a statement that he hopes to debate Moore multiple times.
“I also look forward to debating Wes Moore,” he said in an email in response to questions from The Baltimore Banner. Cox said his team has fielded multiple inquiries about debates from nonprofit organizations and media outlets.
“We need more transparency and interaction for the public, not less. I look forward to hearing that Moore will finally agree to multiple debates and am standing by already confirmed to do so,” Cox said.
Moore and Cox are the leading candidates to succeed Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, whose second term ends in January. Candidates from the Libertarian, Green and Working Class parties will also appear on the ballot.
David Karol, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said campaigns often give “lip service” to being interested in debates. Typically the front-runners are risk averse, while underdogs are more eager to debate in hopes of shaking up the race.
“Moore is strongly favored. He doesn’t really need to debate,” Karol said. “In this case, however, Moore may calculate that he has little to fear from giving Cox exposure, given Cox’s extreme positions.”
Moore represents a mainstream brand of Democratic politics, with a message focused on expanding economic, educational and other opportunities for all Marylanders. After Moore won a fiercely contested Democratic primary that had 10 candidates on the ballot, his rivals have largely turned into his allies and endorsed him.
Cox, meanwhile, represents one wing of a fractured Republican Party. Cox won the endorsement of former President Donald J. Trump after being involved in the Trump campaign’s elections investigations in Pennsylvania in 2020. Cox maintains that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Trump, and he was in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021 before Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building.
In the Republican primary, Cox defeated a candidate from the more traditional wing of the Republican Party, Kelly Schulz, a former member of Hogan’s cabinet. Neither Schulz nor Hogan is supporting Cox in the general election, with Hogan repeatedly criticizing Cox as a “whack job” and “not, in my opinion, mentally stable.”
Hogan and Moore had a brief but genial conversation when they crossed paths at a government conference last week. The two posed for pictures before heading their separate ways.
While Democrats believe Moore is well-positioned to win, Moore said he is taking Cox seriously and highlighting how different they are — and how he believes Cox is dangerous to democracy.
“This is not to be taken lightly, and this is serious,” Moore said. “What I have in November is not an opponent. It’s a threat.”
As Moore makes his risk-versus-reward calculation on debates, one factor could be whether he might get national attention for a strong debate performance, Karol said.
“He may also hope for a confrontation that produces a viral moment that raises his national profile,” Karol said.
Candidates in the lead tend to seek fewer debates, hoping to avoid making mistakes, while candidates who are trailing often seek as many debates as possible, said Roger E. Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Though there’s not yet any independent polling in the Moore-Cox race, the two candidates are falling into that same pattern, he said.
A good debate showing can sway undecided voters as well as energize supporters to turn out to vote or make campaign donations, Hartley said.
“It’s an opportunity for them to distinguish themselves on the issues and give voters a chance to hear form them and see how they interact,” he said.
Cox has “some ground to make up” in trying to appeal to a general election electorate that is more liberal than the Republican primary voters who selected him. “You can’t come across as an archconservative,” Hartley said.
Moore, meanwhile, will want to show that he has a good handle on policy issues and is ready to lead the state, Hartley said.
Moore declined to participate in a candidates forum at the Maryland Association of Counties annual conference in Ocean City last weekend. Moore and Cox would not have shared the stage and debated; rather, candidates were invited to appear one at a time to answer questions.
Moore attended the conference for several days, departing before the Saturday candidates forum. Cox, who attended the forum but not the rest of the conference, noted Moore’s absence in social media posts.
In a statement, Cox said he was disappointed that Moore was a no-show at the forum, “where Maryland’s elected officials were together in one room and we had an opportunity to answer important questions for the State.”
The number of televised gubernatorial debates has varied over the years.
In the 2018 governor’s race, Hogan and Democratic nominee Ben Jealous debated on TV just once, in late September. Jealous had proposed a series of five debates, Hogan initially offered to do two, and they ended up meeting on the debate stage just the one time.
That sole debate was almost derailed when the Jealous campaign objected to one of the proposed panelists, a newspaper reporter from Hagerstown. That caused The Baltimore Sun to threaten to withdraw its participation on the panel. Jealous backed off from his objection and the debate went on as planned.