RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Organizers have called off a debate between Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Republican Yesli Vega, saying they could not get through an impasse over moderators and security concerns before a deadline set by the congresswoman’s campaign.
Spanberger’s campaign accused Vega of taking steps to “stall the debate into nonexistence, and the GOP candidate said the congresswoman wanted “to avoid questions” about a Democratic state lawmaker’s bill on child abuse.
The organizers of the debate — the Prince William Committee of 100 and the Prince William-Fauquier Area League of Women Voters — said the campaigns hit “an impasse over security concerns and disagreements over proposed moderators,” ending talks on a possible agreement for the debate.
“The League and the Committee of 100 volunteers worked tirelessly to accommodate requests on everything from the format and media coverage to security; however, we were unable to reach an acceptable compromise within the timeframe set by Congresswoman’s campaign,” the organizers said in a joint statement Monday.
The organizers said they asked Prince William County police to provide officers for the Oct. 21 debate and were in discussions “with a respected and experienced moderator” but the sides failed to reach an agreement.
Spanberger accused Vega’s campaign of using “pressure to corrupt” the organizers’ efforts, including rejecting “multiple experienced, nonpartisan moderators with a record of moderating debates” before pushing for radio host Larry O’Connor to moderate the debate.
“In a last-ditch effort to spare the utter embarrassment of pulling out of a debate traditionally attended by Republican candidates, the Vega campaign corrupted the Prince William Committee of 100’s proposed event,” Spanberger’s campaign said in a statement sent to 8News Tuesday.
“She did so on multiple occasions, at first, by threatening to withdraw without WJLA’s help drafting and moderating the questions and forcing an in-studio event — which the nonpartisan committee rightly refused. However, she then worked a last-ditch effort to install a hyper-partisan to co-moderate the debate.”
In a statement from Oct. 14, Spanberger called O’Connor, host of O’Connor & Company on WMAL and a former editor at the right-wing outlet Breitbart, “a right-wing radio host known for spreading lies, hyper-partisan vitriol, and hatred against Democrats.”
Ray Mizener, president of the Prince William Committee of 100, told 8News that organizers acknowledged Spanberger’s issues with O’Connor as a moderator. He said he asked for patience as they searched for a replacement for the moderators and was set to speak with the political scientist Dr. Bob Holsworth after 3 p.m. on Oct. 16.
“I was on the phone with the Vega campaign around noon Sunday when I received notice of the Spanberger campaign’s final email withdrawing from the event citing moderator uncertainty and security concerns was received from a Committee member,” Mizener told 8News.
O’Connor took exemption to Spanberger’s statement, accusing her of slander and questioning the timeline of when he was confirmed as a co-moderator and when her campaign accepted the invitation.
“The debate organizers confirmed me as a co-moderator,” he tweeted. “I have emails. It defies credulity that @RepSpanberger’s team did not approve this before the debate committee had confirmed with me. Instead of slandering me, perhaps the congresswoman should explain all of this confusion.”
In her response to Spanberger’s statement, Vega claimed the two-term congresswoman was backing out of the debate because she didn’t want to answer questions about a news report regarding a bill from Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) to expand the definition of child abuse.
Del. Guzman called the news report, which said she was planning on introducing legislation that could bring possibly face charges to parents “if they do not affirm their child’s sexual orientation and gender identity, “misleading.” Spanberger said she did not support the legislation, but Vega tried to tie her with Guzman in a statement about the debate.
“Our campaign has been nothing but accommodating, literally agreeing to every Spanberger request without objection,” Vega said in her statement. “Abigail is scared to answer why she supports this extreme anti-parent agenda.”
Efforts to reach the campaigns were not successful Monday. The debate in the 7th District, one of Virginia’s closely-watched and competitive congressional races, was set for Oct. 21.
Vega, a former Manassas Park police officer and former Prince William sheriff’s deputy, sits on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and is an auxiliary deputy in the county’s sheriff’s office.
Spanberger’s re-election bid comes in a new 7th Congressional District that no longer includes the Richmond suburbs.
Instead, it stretches from Greene County to King George and Caroline counties. Prince William County has the largest share of voters in the district, followed by Stafford and Spotsylvania counties, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP).
Early voting in Virginia started in September and runs until Nov. 5. Election Day is Nov. 8.