Uneventful Mikulski, Wargotz debate strikes few sparks
The first and presumably final debate between Sen. Barbara Mikulski and her Republican challenger, Eric Wargotz, is unlikely to alter the dynamics of a Maryland Senate contest that seems all but decided.
Airing tonight on Maryland Public Television, the 24-minute joint appearance is probably the only opportunity for voters to see the candidates side-by-side. They answered questions from moderator Jeff Salkin and, occasionally, responded to one another, though the discussion never grew heated.
The Wargotz team has tried to accuse Mikulski of refusing to debate, but, in reality, the front-running senator could have easily ducked this encounter without suffering serious damage.
As it was, she took a risk--admittedly a small one--by agreeing to sit across a table from her opponent in the Owings Mills studio. The danger: that a Mikulski gaffe or other unexpected development, caught on camera, might alter the outcome of the Nov. 2 vote.
That did not happen. Instead, their encounter turned out to be uneventful and almost sedate.
Wargotz, a Queen Anne's county commissioner, did his best to play on anti-establishment and anti-incumbent sentiment, promising that he would not be part of the "same old, same old" in Washington. In fact, the word "old" popped out of his mouth several times.
When Mikulski broke into a longwinded Wargotz answer at one point ("I thought we weren't going to filibuster, Jeff," she complained), the challenger said he'd try to wrap up quickly, then added, "I'm new at this. You're an old pro."
Mikulski, 74, may have lost a few steps in recent years, but her 53-year-old opponent isn't expected to knock her off. A new Baltimore Sun poll shows her with almost a two-to-one lead, in line with other statewide surveys.
Mikulski stuck to the formula that has worked extremely well for her over the years, softening her image by referring to herself as "Senator Barb," repeatedly drawing on her record of delivering federal money for the state and throwing off the corny one-liners that are her stock-in- trade.
"I‘m not a slogan senator, I’m a solution senator," she said in her closing comments, neatly coining another slogan.
She defended the Democratic stimulus package as a plus for the economy, talked about the need to do more to help small businesses create jobs, touted her work on health care legislation that will benefit women and said she favors a moratorium on new home foreclosures.
Mikulski also called for carbon pricing as part of new energy legislation and said it is both an environmental and a national security imperative. Reducing American reliance on imported oil will "keep us from funding these petro-jihadists that want to kill us," she said. "Every time we fill up a tank, we’re filling up a terrorist's gun."
Wargotz, a physician, tried to work his campaign message into every answer: Mikulski has been on Capitol HIll for too long (34 years, he noted) and is responsible for many of the state's problems. He said he has the new ideas that Maryland and the country need, though perhaps he didn't have enough time to outline them.
Most of those he mentioned--extending the Bush tax cuts, repealing the just passed health care law and reducing large jury awards in medical malpractice cases--didn't sound terribly new. Then again, there was nothing particularly novel about Mikulski's proposals, including public-private partnerships to create new jobs statewide, from the docks of Baltimore to the high-tech labs of the I-270 corridor.
"We’ve heard this same old rhetoric," Wargotz said, getting another chance to use the O-word, "yet we don’t create jobs. In Maryland, our unemployment rate went up again last month. What we need are fresh ideas."
Both candidates said afterward that they were satisfied with their performance. Wargotz used a chance hallway encounter to introduce his wife and three children to Mikulski, who was gracious and told them she was sure she'd be seeing them around.
If they do meet again, though, it won't be at a debate.