Pennsylvania's Libertarian Senate Candidate Gets Invited, Then Snubbed From Televised Debate

Green Party candidate also left out of debate that will include only two of the four candidates on the ballot.


Hill Street Studios Tetra Images/Newscom

Third party candidates are used to getting snubbed when it comes to political debates, but Dale Kerns says he was promised a spot in an October 20 senatorial debate in the Philadelphia media market—only to have the invitation rescinded as the debate neared, apparently at the request of the station hosting it.

Kerns, an electrical contractor from the Philadelphia suburbs, is the Libertarian candidate in a four-way Senate race that also includes incumbent Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Hazleton), and Green Party candidate Neal Gale. All four candidates have qualified for the ballot in Pennsylvania.

Emails obtained by Reason show that Kerns' campaign was twice assured of a spot in a televised debate by executives at the state's chapter of the League of Women Voters, which typically plays a role in organizing debates. In March, Suzanne Almeida, the then-executive director of the group, told Kerns' campaign manager that Kerns would "certainly" be invited to "participate in candidate forums after the primary."

In late August, the campaign again contacted the League of Women Voters seeking information about planned debates. Jill Greene, who had taken over as executive director in July, responded on August 29 to say that she was currently trying to plan a Senate debate with the League's media partners and that she would "be sure to include Mr. Kerns and Mr. Gale."

Six weeks later, after the debate had been scheduled for October 20 on Philadelphia's ABC affiliate, WPVI-TV, Greene emailed Kerns' campaign manager John Odermatt to deliver the bad news. The League had asked to include Kerns and Gale in the debate, she said, but "other organizers" did not "feel as if current polling warranted an invitation."

"The fault is mine," she wrote in a subsequent email explaining the mix-up. "I was unclear about what was agreed to and I should have been more certain before responding." She promised to work with the League's debate partners "to encourage them to include more candidates."

On Tuesday, Greene told Reason that any questions regarding the decision not to invite Kerns or Gale to the debate "should be referred to WPVI, as it was their decision."

Niki Hawkins, director of community affairs for WPVI-TV, told Odermatt that candidates must have 10 percent support in "multiple reputable statewide polls" in order to qualify for the debate, according to other emails obtained by Reason. Even if a candidate does reach that mark, the rules say, debate organizers "may consider other factors as well."

In an email to Reason, Hawkins defended the station's decision on the grounds that Kerns had failed to meet eligibility criteria including "significant voter support for the candidacy as reflected in polling numbers." Candidates who hit 10 percent in the June and August polls by Franklin and Marshall College were invited, she said. "We did not extend an invitation to Mr. Kerns because his polling numbers were far below the ten percent threshold."

It's true that Kerns has fallen short of the 10 percent threshold that serves as the only objective standard in WPVI's criteria. He got 2 percent of the vote in a September poll by Franklin and Marshall College, and the same percentage in another September poll conducted by Muhlenberg University—tracking closely with the 2.4 percent of Pennsylvanians who voted for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson in 2016. Both polls show Casey with a double-digit lead over Barletta. Most national pollsters have not included Kerns, as is sadly typical for Libertarians and other third party candidates, and Casey is generally considered to have a comfortable edge over his three challengers.

But it's also true that Kerns wasn't officially on the ballot until August, so WPVI's decision to relyon polls conducted earlier in the campaign skews against the inclusion of third party candidates.

Kerns says those thresholds are intended to limit participation in the televised debates.

"Make no mistake, this is cronyism: big media corporations colluding with big government political parties to keep out competition," says Kerns. "The mainstream media screams about Russia stealing elections, but behind the scenes they pull the strings to keep the duopoly in control."

After President Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate since 1988 to win Pennsylvania, the state figured to be one of the most important for this year's primary elections. That polls show both Casey, a two-term incumbent, and incumbent Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf with wide leads is an indication of how the state's electorate has shifted in just two years.

Of course, WPVI is not required to invite anyone to a debate it hosts and is free to exclude any candidate for subjective or objective reasons. Still, it's disappointing to see one of the major networks in the state's largest media market excluding legitimate candidates who have a place on the ballot. Inviting Kerns (and Gale) would likely improve the quality of the debate, too. In the current environment of voter dissatisfaction with both major parties, having alternatives included in a debate would allow for a broader discussion of policy—rather than what figures to be a desperate attempt by Barletta to save a flailing campaign.

Pennsylvania recently changed its discriminatory ballot access laws—a longstanding rule had required Republicans and Democrats to collect only 2,000 signatures to get on the statewide ballot, but forced third parties to get 60,000 signatures—but it's clear that third parties still have a long way to go before they will get equal treatment in the state.

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  1. WPVI knows most voters have no interest in learning what minor-party candidates have to say about the issues and it sure as hell isn’t the media’s job to inform or educate them. Dirty laundry, mud-slinging, slanderous sound bites and faux outrage are what sells the eyeballs, not boring-ass policy discussions.

  2. Of course, WPVI is not required to invite anyone to a debate it hosts and is free to exclude any candidate for subjective or objective reasons.

    This is incorrect as a matter of Federal campaign finance law. Debate staging organizations are only exempt from the prohibitions on corporate campaign contributions if they use predetermined and objective criteria to determine debate inclusion. Criteria made up after the debate staging organization has decided who they want to include, or subjective criteria like saying that they “may consider other factors as well” are a violation of Federal law.

    The station is giving a prohibited campaign contribution to the Republican and Democratic candidates and they are receiving a prohibited contribution by participating.

    1. I hate to break the news to you, but the federal courts have already listened to all of these arguments and flat-out rejected them.

      If you don’t believe me, go ask Gary Johnson and Jill Stein; they’ll confirm that.

      1. The arguments made against the CPD and their staging of Presidential debates were not based on 11 CFR 110.13, they were based on other legal theories.

        The law on debate staging organizations is exactly as I paraphrased above, see the text here:

        1. Since when did the law matter? People with power do what they want because nobody can stop them. So by definition the law cannot be enforce upon people with power, because nobody can make them do a damn thing.

          1. Shorter sarcasmic: FYTW

            1. apt. especially in Philly. “what’re you gonna do about it?” is life there.

        2. Using campaign finance laws to force a private organization to invite your nominee. You truly are the worse LP chair ever

    2. This. No one seems to ever pay any attention to the “in-kind contribution” language of McCain Feingold.

      1. Seriously. This needs to be brought up WITH A VENGEANCE.

        Honestly, I think it would be a BRILLIANT strategy for the Republicans to employ against the shenanigans the MSM and big tech have been up to. They have the money and the muscle, not to mention most of the levers of government at their command, to actually get it done… That the legal ramifications would filter down to helping Libertarians is icing on the cake!

  3. “Kerns, an electrical contractor from the Philadelphia suburbs”

    We’re looking for something a little more ivy league.

    1. Yeah, Kerns isn’t Ivy League, so he never learned why it is morally o.k. to send armed federal agents to your house or place of work to extract as much of your wallet’s contents as they can get away with.

      1. He’s a contractor. I’m sure he knows how to extract your wallet’s contents.

    2. Honestly, the part that I love best about that kind of arrogance is that in a lot of cases the “lowly peasant” actually makes more money, and is more educated than the snobby guy.

      As a Seattleite you’ll get this one… I had a next door neighbor move in a couple years ago now. I live in Ballard. He literally won’t even make eye contact with me because for SOME reason he just thinks I’m the scum of the earth. I can just tell by the few interactions I’ve managed to get out of him. Funny thing is, I know 110% that I am smarter and better educated than him, and I bet I make more money than he does! I just don’t bother to display most of the trappings of a yuppie urbanite tool, so he looks down on me.

      A million bucks says this electrical contractor makes a LOT more money than the average Harvard or Yale graduate.

      OKAY I just googled after typing that last line, and average income of a Harvard graduate by age 34 is only $81,500… LOL That just gave me a morale boost, since I was making more than that at 24 or 25. LOL

  4. It is reasonable to limit participation in (at least some) debates, but several factors — including inertia, obstruction by the two major parties, counterproductive conduct by the Libertarian Party and its candidates, viewer preferences (real or perceived) — make that rent too damn high.

    Ballot access is a similar problem, one the Libertarian Party likely could solve if it would become modestly effective.

    1. Catch 22: Can’t get into the debate without a sufficient percentage of people liking your message, but you can’t get your message out to people without getting into the debate.

    2. Ballot access is not going to be solved by any third party. It can only be solved by eliminating the control of the DeRps over it (and yeah – the media is simply an agent of the DeRps as long as political ad money is a major source of media revenues during election quarters.

      Every other country on Earth has figured out that there is a conflict of interest here. Every other country has figured out how to resolve that. Only the US is too fucking corrupt and stupid to do so. Bless our hearts.

      1. Yup. It’s a major problem. And all the other laws as far as HOW elections are decided too. Getting in the debates ain’t everything.

  5. “Of course, WPVI is not required to invite anyone to a debate it hosts and is free to exclude any candidate for subjective or objective reasons. ”

    WPVI manages as a private actor ONLY because the FCC zealously guards them from the tragedy of the commons in the air around Philly. England does this better than we do – free time on the Queen’s frequencies for all candidates.

    1. So PBS and NPR have to host the debates and everyone on the ballot has to be included?

  6. …debate organizers “may consider other factors as well.”

    Other factors being whether third party candidates would spoil for or against their preferred outcome.

  7. Better bite the bullet and acknowledge the right of the Old Media to promote the two major parties at the expense of other parties.

    Use the acknowledgement as the basis for getting more people to distrust the Old Media and look up alternatative candidate on their iThingies.

    1. I wonder if the Greens and Libertarians set up a streaming debate where they each took time to answer the questions asked of the DeRps and then threw it up on Facebook and Youtube, would it make a difference? At least it would be getting their messages out there.

  8. Next time run in one or both of the major parties.

    1. “or both” was lol

  9. Hey, we can’t have Libertarians or Green Party members debating the two ruling party candidates.
    Otherwise people might start thinking for themselves…and we all know what that leads to!

  10. Seriously, I’m surprised a libertarian even got 2 percent.

    The ideology is so wrought with contradictions and legal bandaids, the retard party would do better.

    1. The Retard Party wins out by sheer numbers.

    2. Rob, thank you for sharing your feelings. What is the “retard party”? Are you a member?

  11. Not the central point, but it did strike me that maybe the LP should be sure to nominate its candidates prior to the polling window?

    1. If only it were that easy. The LP nominated Dale Kerns on March 3rd, but the law says that they cannot be a candidate on the ballot until August 8th – due to turning in signatures.

      The R and D turn in 2,000 signatures and then have a primary to be considered on the ballot. Dale Kerns was nominated before them, but had to wait until the August 1st date to turn in his 13,000 signatures in order to be considered on the ballot. Being that the R’s and D’s make the rules, they keep competition out. Ballot access and debate access is how they do it.

      Perhaps PA should make primaries open, or make ballot access equal to all parties. And perhaps ABC should know that they are using polls with data that is flawed, in a process that is flawed. Dale Kerns garnered more signatures to get on the ballot than Bob Casey and Lou Barletta combined (times 3)!

      1. They could also do something simple like “Anybody with over 1%” or “Anybody in the top 5 of polling” etc. Stuff that is attainable, but wouldn’t leave you with 137 loonies who just want to be on TV.

        But that would be if they actually cared about having a proper debate, or getting different opinions out there. That is obviously not what they’re going after.

        1. Or just whoever makes it on the ballot – it is hard to get on the ballot. 137 loonies have never been on the ballot for one office in one election. There are only 4 candidates on this ballot for U.S.. Senate in PA.

          1. True. Assuming they maintain horrible ballot access laws that would work. I would rather those get eased up at least SOME though. I mean it shouldn’t be a one page application online and any idiot can get on the ballot… But the bar should be relatively low. So if that was the case, then having some other REASONABLE requirements wouldn’t be horrible.

  12. Fear.. by the owners of damaging their political hold on their world.

    Run for Liberty.

  13. Par for the course.

    I don’t think anything is ever going to change on this front until SOME 3rd party, preferably the Libertarian Party, has either a billionaire OR a celebrity run. Somebody that can’t be ignored, like Ross Perot basically. OR perhaps if either the Rs or the Ds literally crash and burn as a party, and there is a period of fluidity between then and when a single replacement party firmly takes over where there are saaay 2 major left wing parties competing for the votes that are both taken seriously, or two right wing parties. Then that might allow some traditional 3rd parties to slip into the conversation as well.

    But if nothing major changes, I don’t see anybody trying to actually make these things fair or reasonable.

    1. Actually, this system is what stopped Ross Perot. In 1992 Ross Perot received 19% of the popular vote. 4 years later they started “making debates viable” with “viable candidates” only. The Presidential Debate Commission was formed. This debate commission kept Ross Perot out of the next election process by banning him from debates by not meeting their polling requirements. The debate criteria is BS – most polls utilize a pool of 400-1,500 people (some use 200 people).

      1. This guy understands the law-changing clout of spoiler votes. Once voters understand the leverage a libertarian vote hands them (go ahead, make my day!) we’ll be able to get rid of the communist income tax and prohibitionist asset forfeiture to boot!

      2. Yeah, they hosed him the 2nd time around. There were already limits even during the 1st run though. They were high enough they figured nobody would meet them. THEN Perot did, so they magically raised the bar. That’s all more or less how it went down IIRC.

  14. Here is an interesting piece of info: 6 ABC is owned by Disney. Disney has donated in the 2018 cycle to the Democratic Senate Committee and the Republican Senate Committee, as well as personally to Bob Casey’s re-election fund.

  15. Telescreened debates weren’t a thing before the networks turned aside sth like 17 communist, socialist, nationalsocialist, dixiecrat, looter, populist and prohibition party orators eager to participate in the Nixon-Kennedy debate. That same defeated Nixon became president following a convenient assassination involving at least 2 gunmen, then changed the tax code to PAY the media subsidies to exclude the upstart Libertarian party. The irony is we don’ need no steenkin’ fascist airtime. Our current 4% (allowing for looter cheating) of the vote is twice what the Prohibitionists needed to saddle us with Comstock laws and felony light beer and the socialists to fasten a communist income tax upon us. We are steadily repealing those usurpations using spoiler votes, just as they were passed–before people realized that religious altruism builds death camps.

  16. Is Kerns for a carbon tax like “Libertarian” Gary Johnson?

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