GOP gubernatorial candidates Charlie Gerow and Jake Corman after a Jan. 5, 2022 debate among the candidates in Carlisle, Pa. (Capital-Star photo).
*This story was updated at 2:56 p.m. 3/22/22 with comment from the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.
Four of the leading Republican gubernatorial candidates have signed a letter to “the Pennsylvania press” laying out conditions for them to participate in a primary election debate this year.
The candidates — Lou Barletta, Jake Corman, Dave White and Bill McSwain — all agreed they would only debate if the moderator was a registered Pennsylvania Republican, has not endorsed anyone in the race, and “must not have spoken negatively about any of the candidates on stage” or work for an organization that has “maligned one of the candidates.”
Additionally, the letter — first reported by Politics PA — demanded that candidates must have a minimum of 30 seconds to answer all questions.
“We hope this helps people put together a potential debate that will benefit the Republican voters who will choose the next gubernatorial nominee,” the letter said.
Much is at stake this year in the Republican primary, as voters must choose a candidate to run for the state’s open gubernatorial seat and replace outgoing two-term Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who was term limited.
However, the state Republican Party declined to endorse a candidate, leaving nine candidates to compete to be the party’s standard bearer in November and likely run against Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is unopposed in his primary, to win the governor’s mansion.
Representatives of the four campaigns told the Capital-Star that the letter’s debate criteria only applied to the primary election, not the general election.
Asked how they’d define a moderator who was “spoken negatively” of a candidate or works for an organization that “maligned one of the candidates,” one source from a signatory’s campaign said that the requirement would be handled on a case-by-case basis, along “know it when you see it” lines.
As for the requirement for long-form answers, the letter’s signers argued it was about nuance.
“Raise of hand questions or yes or no questions do not allow candidates to provide necessary context to important questions facing the Commonwealth,” Barletta’s campaign manager, Jeremy Sheftel, said in a statement.
The parameters, Corman’s spokesperson Dave La Torre added, were requested “to ensure Republican candidates for governor could robustly debate one another — not Democratic or partisan moderators — about the issues that are important to Pennsylvania families and job creators.”
The four signers do appear to have an edge in recent polling. A Fox News poll released this month found Barletta, a former Luzerne County congressman, White, a Delaware County businessman, Corman, a top state senator from Centre County, and McSwain, a former federal prosecutor from Chester County, combined for 50 percent of respondents’ support in the GOP gubernatorial primary.
But for the five candidates left out, the attempt at gate keeping left a bad taste in their mouth.
“Unlike some other Republican candidates running for governor, I’m not afraid to debate,” gubernatorial hopeful and longtime GOP operative Charlie Gerow said in a statement. “I’ll debate the other candidates any time, any place. If you’re afraid to debate, how do you plan on defeating Josh Shapiro?”
Tom Whitehead, campaign manager for Poconos surgeon Nche Zama, added that Zama was willing to debate in any event they were invited to.
Picking and choosing, he said, is a strategy “when you have a certain amount of money in the bank and just run ads.”
“If they think they can set parameters and still win a general election, they’re missing the big picture,” Whitehead said.
However, one other top contender, conservative state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, did not sign the letter.
Mastriano, who trailed Barletta by one point with 18 percent of primary voters behind him according to the Fox News poll, has been a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump, often spreading false claims of fraud in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
With his strong grassroots backing, many GOP insiders think Mastriano has a good shot at winning the race, barring a narrowing of the field. Mastriano’s campaign did not immediatley reply to a request for comment.
Democrats also took aim at the letter, saying it showed that Barletta, White, McSwain and Corman were “too afraid” to speak to their vision and agenda for Pennsylvania.
“Being unwilling to answer questions from Pennsylvanians should be disqualifying for any candidate fighting to become the next Governor,” Democratic Party spokesperson Marisa Nahem said in a statement.
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