By Les Cohen
Ben Cardin is the well-known Maryland incumbent, a Democrat running for his second term in the U.S. Senate. Dan Bongino is his Republican challenger. Rob Sobhani is an independent, the only one of the three running television ads that no doubt account for his showing in a just-released poll.
Cardin’s campaign is very well funded. Bongino, on the other hand, is a political newcomer without the experience or money to run an effective statewide campaign. Sobhani, who ran for the Senate as a Republican in 1992 and 2000, has money, maybe enough to mount a credible challenge to Ben Cardin. It won’t be easy, but it’s possible, even though two-thirds of Maryland voters are Democrats who tend to vote for their party’s standard-bearer.
The question is, will Sobhani be included in the debates that the two major party candidates agree to hold? The Gonzales statewide poll puts Sobhani in a statistical tie with Bongino, with only 21 and 22 percent support, respectively, from likely voters. (Are they splitting the vote Bongino might have gotten had Sobhani not entered the race? Yes and no, but it doesn’t make any difference as neither candidate is dropping out.) While they’re both well behind Cardin’s 50 percent showing, you can’t argue that Bongino, who has been campaigning for months, deserves to be included in the debate, but not Sobhani, who didn’t enter the race until Sept. 4 and who describes his campaign as “surging.”
Understandably, Cardin doesn’t want Sobhani sharing the stage with him. Why give him the exposure, particularly given that Cardin doesn’t think for a minute that he can lose to Bongino in a two-candidate campaign.
For Bongino, it’s more complicated. If he thought Sobhani would take votes from Cardin, without stealing Republican votes from his campaign, then that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, the Gonzales poll shows Bongino getting support from only 60 percent of his own party’s likely voters, with 22 percent of Republicans saying they’ll vote for Sobhani. It’s a good guess that the Bongino campaign doesn’t take any chances and agrees that it’s better to shut out Sobhani.
Can Cardin and Bongino just tell a viable candidate to butt out? Whatever happened to the FCC concept of “equal time”? The answer is that the equal time provisions cannot be used to force the electronic media to let everyone running for office participate.
But it’s not that simple. While the FCC views debates as newsworthy events the media can cover or not, licensed radio and television stations need to apply some reasonable standard — such as a candidate’s standing in the polls — to determine who qualifies for debate coverage. Licensed stations can’t just arbitrarily decide to cover debates that only include the two major party candidates.
In light of the Gonzales poll, and Rob Sobhani’s demonstrated resources to publicize his candidacy, I think his attorneys need to go after any television station planning to cover a senatorial debate that doesn’t include their client — regardless of what Cardin and Bongino think is in their best interests. It is, after all, only the voters’ best interests that count.
Les Cohen, who resides in Ellicott City, is the author of www.NextContestant.us, an independent political blog.