Eight months after formally announcing he would seek to become the first political independent elected to the U.S. Senate from Maryland, Potomac businessman Neal Simon on Sunday got his first televised opportunity to debate his opponents—and repeatedly went after the two-term incumbent, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin of Baltimore.
Pointing to Cardin’s more than half-century in public office, Simon—at the end of an hour-long session that also included the Republican nominee, Towson University political science lecturer Tony Campbell of Baltimore—declared: “Sen. Cardin was first elected in 1966, and I’m sure he had good intentions, and I’m sure during his first two to three decades he got some things done. But today he’s part of the problem—he follows party leaders who are contributing to the partisan brawl that we’re all so tired of watching.”
Throughout the debate, held at the studios of Baltimore-based WBFF-TV, Cardin and Simon often appeared to agree on policy stances—ranging from opposition to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to U.S. Supreme Court to support of doing more to combat gun violence. Both were highly critical of President Donald Trump, with Simon acknowledging he had not voted for Trump in 2016—leaving the conservative Campbell to defend the current occupant of the White House.
But—in what has been the central theme of his underdog campaign—Simon repeatedly blamed Cardin and his fellow Democrats, as well as the Republicans, for creating a hyper-partisan atmosphere that he said has stymied progress on many of these issues on Capitol Hill.
“There is common ground on the things we need to do,” Simon, 50, said when the discussion turned to greater controls on gun ownership. “Sen. Cardin says, ‘I tried, and the Republicans won’t [go] along’. But I think part of the job of a U.S. senator is to get the other senators to agree with you, and work with them to build coalitions … . You don’t get participation trophies in the Senate. You’re judged on your abilities to get things done—and this is an issue where the U.S. Senate’s inability to get anything done is costing lives.”
Cardin—who enjoyed an overwhelming lead in a public opinion poll released last month—opted to ignore many of Simon’s attacks, not acknowledging Simon by name until the end of the debate. But, on a couple of occasions, he sought to tout his record of working across party lines.
“I work together with Republicans to get things done,” said Cardin, 75, first elected to the Senate in 2006 after four decades of serving in the Maryland House of Delegates and the U.S. House of Representatives. “You need to be able to get things done in a chaotic environment we have with President Trump. I have been able to do that … . Look at the fact that we still have a federal government that is a partner in [the cleanup of] the Chesapeake Bay, despite the fact that the president tried to zero out that budget.”
But Simon—the CEO of a Rockville-based asset management firm—persisted in this line of attack, even when the topic turned to Trump’s handling of the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.
“I think the greatest threat to this country is, in a way, ourselves,” said Simon. “It’s the partisanship and divisiveness—it’s leaders in our government who are pulling us apart and the followers who follow them. It’s the leaders who care more about winning than about advancing us as a country.”
He proceeded to wisecrack: “I think the greatest threats for us are President Trump’s Twitter account and Sen. Cardin’s rubber stamp.”
In response, Campbell, 52, gibed: “Well, that’s a great line. Geez, you just knocked that out of the park.” Cardin cracked a smile as Campbell spoke.
Campbell—who swiped at Simon as well as Cardin in the course of the debate—added: “The question was about North Korea—it wasn’t about partisanship, it wasn’t about Sen. Cardin’s rubber stamp. For the last 18 months, Donald Trump has really done a good job. Look at what he’s done: He’s actually brought North Korea to the table. If this would have been any other president, especially one with a D beside his name, he’d have the Nobel Peace Prize by now.”
Campbell—who said he would have voted for Kavanaugh’s confirmation, while opposing further gun controls and supporting Trump’s proposal for a border wall—emerged in June from an 11-way Republican primary. At times, he appeared to be competing with Simon to emerge as Cardin’s leading challenger, as he criticized the current state of the political system.
“I have put several thousand miles on my car for the last 10 months, and actually won a primary, as opposed to Mr. Simon,” Campbell noted, alluding to Simon getting on the November ballot via a petition drive. Added Campbell: “We have both sides who are using people as political pawns. Most Marylanders don’t agree with it, they don’t like it. We have an opportunity to actually do something different, and that’s why I’m running for U.S. Senate.”
The debate took place less than a month after an independent poll showed Simon running third, at just 8 percent—with Cardin leading with 56 percent, and Campbell at 17 percent. A fourth candidate not included in the debate, Libertarian Party nominee Arvin Vohra, had 1 percent.
The survey of just under 700 registered Maryland voters, conducted from Sept. 11 to 16 by Goucher College’s Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center, had an error margin of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
“We believe we’re well ahead of where that poll had us,” Simon said in an interview following the debate. Asked if he was basing his assertion on internal polling by his campaign, Simon replied, “We believe there’s [another] public poll coming out.” He did not identify the pollster.
“As we’ve gone around Maryland, people are starved for this. They want something different,” Simon declared. “It’s not just Maryland: It’s from around the country, especially in the last week. People were watching the [Kavanaugh] hearing, and they were disgusted and embarrassed.”
While saying during the debate he would have voted against Kavanaugh—“I don’t think he demonstrated the character and temperament it takes to serve as a Supreme Court justice,” said Simon, echoing comments made by Cardin—he afterward sought to differentiate his stance from that of the incumbent.
“I didn’t make up my mind until all the evidence was in after the hearing. He decided a long time before—he announced it weeks before the allegations,” said Simon.
“The Democrats held that letter from [Christine] Blasey Ford for seven weeks before releasing it,” Simon charged during the debate. “The Republicans dumped 42,000 pages of documents on the Democrats the night before the hearings. The American public is tired of this—it’s dangerous political games.”
One policy issue on which Simon sought to draw a distinction between himself and his two opponents was health care.
“The Democratic leaders who Sen. Cardin follows are calling increasingly for socialized medicine, which would add trillions of dollars in expense to our government,” Simon said in response to a question about a “Medicare-for-all” or “single payer” system. “And the Republican leaders have called for abolition of the Affordable Care Act with no replacement, which would leave millions of people without insurance. I think what we need to do is fix the Affordable Care Act. At my company, the cost of our health care doubled in seven years, and it’s because the parties are arguing over how to pay for an incredibly inefficient system.”
Cardin said he supports a “Medicare-type option” within the health insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act “for those who need to get coverage and can’t get it at affordable rates with private insurance.” Campbell voiced opposition to a single-payer system.
Sunday’s debate was available live at 3 p.m. via WBBF-TV’s website and broadcast in Washington on WJLA-TV 24/7 News—formerly Newschannel 8. While Simon challenged Cardin and Campbell to participate in two more such forums, it appears that the first televised Senate debate may also be the last prior to the Nov. 6 election. Simon said afterward that a second debate “hasn’t been firmly set on the schedule,” while contending, “Sen. Cardin had agreed to two debates, but he seems to be avoiding the second one.”
Cardin spokeswoman Sue Walitsky responded in an email, “Each invitation from a media outlet or outside group is taken on a case-by-case basis and considered relative to the Senate schedule.” She added that Cardin “has attended a number of candidate forums this general election cycle.”
Meanwhile, Simon has sought to boost his prospects with a well-funded campaign—into which he has so far pumped more than a half a million dollars of his own assets—along with an aggressive paid advertising effort in both the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., markets. “I plan to continue to invest in the campaign,” Simon said after the debate when asked if he will make further personal contributions or loans.
A two-week TV ad blitz on four Baltimore-based TV stations in late July and early August, featuring a 30-second “bio” ad in which Simon sought to introduce himself to voters, succeeded somewhat in moving the needle in his favor. The Goucher poll showed him with the support of 12 percent of respondents in the Baltimore area, as compared to just 4 percent of Maryland’s D.C. suburbs—where he did not go on TV until mid-September.
On top of the earlier ad buy—which cost the Simon campaign about $160,000, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) public web-site—Simon has spent an additional $300,000 on his latest TV effort, which began the week after Labor Day on both Baltimore and Washington over-the-air TV stations. It ran through the first weekend in October, and featured both the earlier bio ad and another 30-second spot dubbed “Outsider”. Simon Sunday declined to discuss further TV advertising plans prior to the Nov. 6 general election.
The Cardin campaign is scheduled to air its first TV ads in the Baltimore market this week, according to the FCC website, with spots on Washington television broadcasting a week later. Campbell’s thinly funded campaign has yet to purchase TV air time.
The latest available financial disclosure reports from the Simon campaign, filed with the Federal Election Commission in late July, showed Simon taking in close to $1.2 million—with nearly $660,000 in outside contributions supplemented by a $525,000 loan he made to the campaign. While the report showed $661,000 available to spend in his campaign treasury, it still put Simon at a nearly 5-1 disadvantage to Cardin, who reported $3 million on hand as of his last report filed at the end of June. Campbell reported only $6,400 in his campaign treasury, after raising just $42,300.