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Pennsylvania Republicans running for governor want a safe space for their debates

Bullish on their chances to take back the governor’s mansion, Republicans are wary of giving Democrats any potential fodder for the general election.

Left to right, Pennsylvania Republican candidates for governor Jake Corman, Bill McSwain, and Dave White.
Left to right, Pennsylvania Republican candidates for governor Jake Corman, Bill McSwain, and Dave White.Read moreAP File Photos

Republican candidates for Pennsylvania governor say they’re eager to make their case to voters in televised debates. But first they have a few conditions.

Bullish on their chances to take back the governor’s mansion in November after eight years of Democrat Tom Wolf’s administration, Republicans are wary of giving presumptive Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro any potential fodder for the general election. So the campaign managers for four of the leading candidates wrote a letter this week informing news organizations that potential debate moderators must meet certain criteria.

For starters, they must be registered Republicans and Pennsylvania residents.

They also “must not have spoken negatively about any of the candidates on stage” or work for “an organization that has maligned one of the candidates,” reads the letter. It was signed by campaign managers for former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, former Delaware County Councilman Dave White, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman.

The letter, first reported by PoliticsPA late Monday, didn’t say how the campaigns would determine whether a given organization had “maligned” one or more of the candidates. One GOP source close to the process said the campaigns hadn’t yet figured out how they would enforce that provision, while another said such a situation would likely be obvious to all involved.

The letter said prospective moderators cannot have endorsed or donated to one of the candidates and must give the candidates at least 30 seconds to deliver responses to each question.

“We hope this helps people put together a potential debate that will benefit the Republican voters who will choose the next gubernatorial nominee,” it says.

Campaign representatives said the conditions won’t apply to the November general election.

Another leading GOP contender, State Sen. Doug Mastriano, wasn’t involved in the deliberations that led to the letter, according to people familiar with the matter. His campaign didn’t return a request for comment.

» READ MORE: We're tracking the candidates running for Pennsylvania governor

Nine candidates submitted signatures last week to get on the May 17 primary ballot. At least one took issue with the proposal. Former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, the only woman running for governor, said the same men issuing conditions for debate participation “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.”

“I am not afraid of tough questions, and I will not demand to see the registration card of the questioner before I answer,” she said in a statement.

Debate moderators are often criticized by partisans on both sides. But trust in the news media is substantially lower among Republicans and independents than Democrats, according to Gallup. The Republican National Committee in January threatened to skip 2024 debates hosted by the nonprofit commission that has held general election presidential debates for decades.

The risk that comments made on stage to court more partisan primary voters could alienate more moderate voters in a general election has long been a feature of American elections. But the GOP candidates want the debates to be “helpful to Republican primary voters — not in providing Democratic operatives ammunition,” said a source familiar with the campaigns’ thinking.

It remained unclear Wednesday whether mainstream news organizations would accept the conditions. Many political journalists are registered as independent or unaffiliated. Chris Baxter, editor of Spotlight PA, an investigative newsroom that’s planning to host debates in partnership with The Inquirer and other news outlets, declined to comment on the conditions.

An aide to one of the top GOP candidates pointed to the broadcast journalist Dennis Owens, a veteran reporter for ABC27 in Harrisburg, as an eligible moderator. The station has reached out to the campaigns about scheduling a debate in April, sources said. Owens referred questions to ABC27 news director Olivia Dangler, who didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Republican gubernatorial debates held so far this year have been hosted or moderated by GOP officials and consultants.

“This is about partnering with Republicans to ensure we have a Republican process to select the Republican nominee,” Barletta spokesperson Tim Murtaugh said. “Republicans ought to be the ones to pick the Republican candidate. That means the debate process as well.”

McSwain spokesperson Rachel Tripp said the guidelines will “ensure that voters are not misled or unfairly influenced by moderators with a hostile or partisan agenda, and that the focus remains on candidates and their message for Pennsylvania.”

Marisa Nahem, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said voters “deserve better than extreme and out-of-touch politicians too scared to answer basic questions.”

Read the full letter below.