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TDR editorial: Keep debating

Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, left, and Republican candidate, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, shake hands before participating in a debate Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, at Maryland Public Television's studios in Owings Mills, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, left, and Republican candidate, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, shake hands before participating in a debate Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, at Maryland Public Television’s studios in Owings Mills, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Perhaps the most surprising thing to come out of Monday’s gubernatorial debate was Gov. Larry Hogan saying it would be the first time he’s met his Democratic opponent, Ben Jealous.

Sadly, the next time they speak to each other almost assuredly will be on election night, when one calls the other to concede.

That the candidates’ debate in Owings Mills is the only scheduled one this election season has been reported extensively. But it cannot be emphasized enough who are the losers from all of the posturing and grandstanding: Maryland voters.

To be sure, many Marylanders do not need to watch or listen to a debate to decide on their preferred candidate for governor. Some will just look at the letter – D or R – next to the candidate’s name. Debates also often are a losing proposition for the incumbent, whose main goal is to not perform a gaffe that becomes fodder for an attack ad or, more devastatingly in today’s world, an internet meme.

As expected, Jealous and Hogan did not break a lot of new ground during their hour-long debate. There was some of the typical sniping and verbal jabbing that is a feature of the modern debate; campaign talking points rehashed; and, minutes after the debate, both sides declaring victory.

Still, and more importantly, the candidates spent most of their time discussing the economy, public safety, the opioid crisis and education, among other issues of great concern to Marylanders. And both presented distinct points of view on how they would govern. As Goucher College political science professor Mileah Kromer told The Daily Record’s Bryan P. Sears, “For people who tune in, I think they’re presented with people with two clear visions.”

And people did tune in: The Baltimore Sun reported more than 100,000 people in the Baltimore TV market watched the debate Monday night. By comparison, only 40,000 watched Hogan and then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown debate in October 2014, two weeks before the election. (Four years ago, it should be noted, the gubernatorial candidates had three debates, and the lieutenant governor candidates also squared off.)

Another topic in the debate was, naturally, President Donald Trump. For better or for worse, it is clear Trump is having an impact on voter involvement and participation this election. The Pew Research Center reported in June, after Maryland’s primary, that half of all registered voters nationwide are more enthusiastic than usual about voting, up 10 percentage points from 2014. Turnout for both Democratic and Republican primaries for the U.S. House of Representatives also was up significantly from 2014, according to Pew, particularly among Democratic voters.

In Maryland, turnout for the primary election was up slightly compared to 2014, but early voting this year was up 56 percent.

The bet here is turnout for November’s general election will exceed the turnout from four years ago. So it is a shame that, with so much interest and engagement, the Hogan and Jealous camps could not get beyond the schoolyard antics and agree to come face-to-face more than one time prior to Nov. 6. If it takes the General Assembly to establish a nonpartisan commission to oversee the debate process in the future, then so be it.

Civic engagement is the lifeblood of democracy. Depriving Marylanders of multiple chances to hear candidates get challenged by independent observers – and each other – only hurts the state’s residents.

It’s not too late for the Jealous and Hogan camps to schedule at least one more debate before the election. Both men have expressed the view that Maryland politics should be better than the toxicity that sometimes passes for discourse at the national level. What better way to prove this then to continue the robust, civil exchange the two displayed Monday.