ROCKVILLE — On Sunday, the race for Maryland’s open Senate seat came to Montgomery County.
Hoping to familiarize their members with the candidates running for Maryland’s Senate while many are focused instead on the presidential election, B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville invited the top two candidates for Maryland’s open Senate seat.
Jonathan Salant, a Washington correspondent for NJ Advance Media and former president of the National Press Club, moderated the forum where the candidates touched on the Iran nuclear deal, the open seat on the Supreme Court, congressional gridlock and money in politics.
Expecting to fight an uphill battle for the Senate in the blue-minded Maryland, Republican Senate nominee Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-7) said she hopes to replicate Gov. Larry Hogan’s success in winning a statewide election as a Republican.
At the forum, Szeliga, was asked about her support for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Szeliga, said she made a vow to support whoever the Republican nominee was. Szeliga took the opportunity to take a shot at her opponent, seven-term Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8).
“I said when I got in this U.S. Senate race since Nov. 10 and I said since that time I would support my party’s nominee,” Szeliga said. “And I am a woman of my word, I am supporting my party’s nominee and in the same way my opponent Chris Van Hollen is supporting his party’s nominee. But I will tell you that I have called my party’s nominee out on a couple of occasions when he has said things that I disagreed with, but my opponent has never done that.”
Szeliga said she is not a Republican partisan and if elected is willing to challenge her party. When asked about if the Senate should vote on whether to approve President Barack Obama’s nominee to the United States Supreme Court, Szeliga said she would break with Republican Senate leadership and ask for a vote.
In March, Obama appointed Chief Judge of the United State Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court after Justice Antonin Scalia died in February.
Republican Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) said the Senate has no plans to vote to confirm Garland. Szeliga said if elected to the Senate she would pressure Republican leadership to call a vote on Garland.
“You expect your Senate to work, so yes, I would have met with him,” Szeliga said of Garland. “And I think they should’ve had a hearing and vote him up or down.”
With a current open seat on the Supreme Court, Szeliga said she would not look for anything specific in a nominee for the court, but said she admired Scalia as a “constitutionalist.”
Szeliga also criticized Van Hollen’s support for the Iranian nuclear deal that the U.S. and its allies made to reduce Iran’s potential to make a nuclear weapon. Szeliga said the agreement endangers the U.S. and its close ally Israel.
In contrast, when Van Hollen had his turn, he defended the agreement, saying the deal lessened Iran’s amount of highly-enriched uranium, a material needed to make a nuclear bomb.
“The reality is that Iran is in a much more difficult position today if it wanted to build a nuclear weapon than it was at the time of that agreement was signed,” Van Hollen said.
A self-described progressive, Van Hollen is seen as the favorite to replace current Senate seat holder Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who retires after her term ends in January of 2017. Van Hollen, who has Mikulski’s endorsement, defeated Rep. Donna Edwards by 14.5 percentage points.
When asked about his checklist for voting to approve a Supreme Court Justice if elected, Van Hollen said he would want a nominee that had the right temperament and ability to apply the Constitution’s principles to modern time.
“It is important we understand and have justices that recognize the Constitution provides important boundaries and important guidelines, but it is not something frozen in time,” Van Hollen said. “And it has to be interpreted and implemented in the context of its true meaning applied to the current circumstances.”
Van Hollen pivoted to the fight in the Senate over Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court and said Garland was “highly qualified.”
“We haven’t even had a hearing even though he was nominated by the president…and the consequence of that is we had a number of 4-4 decisions.”
Van Hollen said the worst recent decision the Supreme Court made was Citizen United v. FEC, which decided that the federal government could not prohibit Political Action Committees (PAC) from spending money on political speech during an election season.
Van Hollen said the Citizens United decision has led to an influx of money in politics
“It opened the door to unlimited amounts of corporate funding in elections including secret funding in elections, a consequence of that decision,” Van Hollen said.
Both Senate candidates will return to the County again for the Friendship Heights Village Center Candidate Forum in Chevy Chase on Oct. 30, before the Nov. 8 general election.