The Libertarian Party of Ohio contends it was unfairly excluded from a fledgling debate series in Ohio's 2018 governor's race, and is scheduled Thursday to air its claims before state election regulators.
The Ohio Elections Commission must decide whether three face-offs that the new Ohio Debate Commission arranged this year between two major-party gubernatorial candidates, Republican Mike DeWine and Democrat Richard Cordray, constituted illegal corporate contributions by the debate sponsors.
It's an ironic twist for the debate commission, among presumably nonpartisan efforts by civic, media and academic partners around the country aiming to bring more accountability and consistency to debates.
Republican Gov. John Kasich was among a growing number of high-profile candidates around the country when he refused to debate his rival, Democrat Ed FitzGerald, during a runaway re-election bid in 2014. The debate process, in general, has concerned voter advocates across the U.S. as it's become increasingly subject to boycotts, political positioning and onstage grand-standing that they see as unhelpful to democracy.
The Libertarian Party of Ohio alleges in its elections complaint that The City Club of Cleveland, through its "alter-ego" the debate commission, the University of Dayton and Marietta College, violated state election law by giving DeWine and Cordray valuable exclusive exposure that was unavailable to third-party candidates.
The governor's race, which DeWine won, also included Libertarian candidate Travis Irvine and Green Party candidate Constance Gadell-Newton.
Libertarians' initial complaint came in September, between the first and second debates. It alleges the University of Dayton "planned, sponsored and staged" the debate "after being solicited and being aided and abetted by the Cordray and DeWine Campaigns."
"No pre-existing objective criteria — other than the participants being Richard Cordray and Mike DeWine — were published, documented, or in any way made available to the public, the press, the two minor political parties, or the two minor political parties' qualified gubernatorial candidates," the complaint said.
The Cleveland and Marietta sponsors were added to the complaint in October.
All three sponsors and both campaigns dispute Libertarians' reading of Ohio law. They've asked the commission to dismiss the complaint.
In a joint filing Nov. 15, DeWine, Cordray and their campaigns argued that Libertarians are seeking to misapply corporate prohibitions contained in federal election law to an Ohio campaign. They say Ohio's definition of a "contribution" is "fundamentally different" from the federal one, defining a "thing of value" as being intended to influence an election for or against a candidate — not just being connected to one.
"Had the General Assembly intended to explicitly regulate corporate sponsorship of candidate debates, or any other activity loosely 'connected' to an election, it clearly could have done so," they wrote. "But it did not."
The campaigns contend the intent of the debates was the exact opposite of benefiting a single candidate.
The City Club, a nonprofit and leading debate commission participant, also asserts in its complaint response that Ohio's ban on corporate campaign contributions is aimed at those intending to wield political influence, not to educate voters.
Its lawyers wrote that "facilitating a debate between candidates does not pose the risk of corruption against which (Ohio law) was intended to protect."
But Gadell-Newton and her running mate, Brett Joseph, staged a protest at the site of the Cleveland debate in October where they questioned the commission's role as a power broker in the political process.
Joseph said in a statement at the time, "For our democracy to flourish, it is essential that the voters themselves decide who to entrust with public office, based on complete information about candidate choices, rather than having those choices constrained by elite intermediaries."