Four Republican candidates for governor in the party's crowded primary race say they will not join a debate before the primary election unless it is moderated by a Republican who lives in Pennsylvania, eliciting criticism that they are afraid of hard questions.
That prompted a response from Republican candidate Charlie Gerow, who suggested the four are scared of a challenge and said he is “not afraid to debate anytime, anywhere, any candidate on the ballot.”
Another Republican candidate, Melissa Hart, said the four's “diva-esque debate demands” are hypocritical for men “who will leap at the chance to bemoan ‘cancel culture' or ’safe spaces' if they think it will earn them a spot on cable news that night.”
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The Democratic Party piled on, saying the candidates are afraid of “mean questions.”
The Republican primary is unusually crowded, with nine candidates filing paperwork to run, more than party leaders expected or have ever seen in a such a high-profile primary contest.
EDITOR'S NOTE: For an in-depth look at all the candidates running this year in Pennsylvania, as well as analysis and breaking political news, go to NBC10's Decision 2022 page.
The big field is the reason the candidates said they would restrict their participation in debates to ones moderated by a Republican who lives in Pennsylvania, who has not criticized the candidates, or donated money or endorsed in the race.
Democrat Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s two-time elected attorney general, has a clear path to the party’s nomination. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term and has endorsed Shapiro.
In 2018, Republican gubernatorial candidates in the three-way primary appeared in live televised debates moderated by journalists, without a partisan moderator.
Thus far in 2022, Republican candidates have answered questions as a group before Republican Party organizations, Republican Party-aligned groups and business advocacy organizations.
One campaign said the candidates will not participate in debates where journalists ask the questions.
“Republicans ought to pick the Republican candidate, and that means the debate process as well,” said Tim Murtaugh, a campaign spokesperson for Barletta. “This is about partnering with other Republicans to make sure we have a process that doesn't get hijacked by the media or liberal activists.”
Murtaugh said, “the media doesn't have an interest in picking the best Republican candidate to beat Josh Shapiro. Republicans do.”
The state Democratic Party lampooned the decision, saying the four candidates are too cowardly to answer tough questions.
It said such questions include whether Joe Biden legitimately won Pennsylvania — a nod to a Republican inquiry into Pennsylvania’s 2020 election inspired by former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud — or whether they would sign a Texas-style law that bans abortions after roughly six weeks of pregnancy.
On Wednesday, Barletta, Corman, Gerow, Hart, McSwain, White and one other candidate were scheduled to appear in Erie for an hour-long forum sponsored by the Manufacturer & Business Association.
It is to be co-moderated by an anchor from the ABC and Fox affiliate sister stations in Erie. But Murtaugh said the event is a forum — in which the format does not allow for candidates to respond to each other — and thus not subject to the four candidates’ rules about debates.
Gerow — a conservative activist and marketing consultant and former political commentator on a Harrisburg-area Sunday morning public affairs TV show — said Republicans must nominate someone who can take on Shapiro on a debate stage and in the media.
“I think the people of Pennsylvania have a right to hear from the candidates unvarnished, unscripted, and away from these silly 30-second ads we're all sick of," Gerow said.
Hart said she will not demand to see the voter registration card of a questioner before answering and will not “hide behind the curtains of a debate stage until I am confident everything will follow a predetermined script.”