Debate-dodging takes off in midterm campaigns


It isn’t just the traditional reluctance of front-runners to share a stage with their challengers that’s to blame. Instead, a confluence of factors is jeopardizing the once universally agreed notion that candidate debates are a valuable practice in elections.

The media — a traditional arbiter of many debates — is so reviled by Republican primary voters that campaigns now recognize there may be more to gain from criticizing the process than participating. There’s also been a surge in self-funding and celebrity candidates in 2022, whose inexperience at debating and fears of campaign-ending missteps may be leading them to dodge debates altogether. Then there’s the shadow of Donald Trump, whose complaints that debates are rigged is now the party line, with the Republican National Committee throwing the prospect of presidential debates in two years into question.

“The media will fight like cats and dogs, because it’s the last thing in a campaign environment they have any control over,” said Dave Carney, the Republican strategist who advises Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, whose campaign is suggesting he may not debate his Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, in the fall. “But in 10 years, when debates don’t happen anymore, no one will notice, voters won’t notice or care.”

Debates, Carney said, are “crazy … It’s like having your candidates do pet tricks for the media, and I’m against them.”

So far this year, in more than a half-dozen Senate, House and governor’s races across the electoral map, Republican candidates have skipped primary debates, seemingly with few repercussions.

Former football star Herschel Walker, the front-runner in Georgia’s Republican Senate primary, has refused to debate his primary opponents. So has Jim Pillen, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Nebraska, and Mike DeWine, the incumbent governor of Ohio. In North Carolina, Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) ducked a Senate primary debate last month. Mehmet Oz, the TV personality-turned Pennsylvania Senate candidate, says he wants to debate Anthony Fauci — who isn’t running against him — but has skipped debating the Republicans who are. And in Nevada’s race for governor, Joe Lombardo, the Clark County sheriff, was a no-show at a debate among Republicans last month.

In Pennsylvania, four GOP campaigns for governor sent a joint letter to the media recently laying out the conditions under which they would participate. One of them was a no-brainer: No one who has endorsed or donated to one of the candidates on stage can serve as a moderator.

The other criteria, however, were more constraining on the media or any other entity that sought to host a debate. There could be no questions with answers shorter than 30 seconds. Moderators must be registered Republicans who live in the state, and must not have spoken negatively about any of the candidates on stage. Nor can the moderator work “for an organization that has maligned one of the candidates.”

Republicans like Walker have suggested they will debate in their general elections, if they advance. But in a midterm year in which Republicans are favored across the electoral map, many candidates may have little imperative to agree to a debate in the fall. Already, it’s clear they no longer consider it a requirement of a campaign.

“In general, most candidates do not feel they get a fair shake from the mainstream media,” said Saul Anuzis, a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. “So, I think you put yourself at risk going up … against a Democrat in debates, depending on who the moderators are going to be.”

He said, “Just from a strategic perspective, there’s not a whole lot of reason to give your opponents an opportunity to attack you or make a mistake or set yourself up on an issue that may backfire against you … Why put yourself at risk for anything?”

In Nebraska, Pillen’s campaign said the only thing he was missing by declining a primary debate was “political theater.

In the past, debate avoidance has come at the cost of bad publicity, and some debate skippers are getting a taste of that this year. Earlier this month, Dan Moulthrop, president of the board of the Ohio Debate Commission, penned an op-ed in The Columbus Dispatch blistering DeWine for his refusal to participate, under the headline, “It’s bad for democracy.”

A spokesperson for one of Walker’s opponents in Georgia, Gary Black, was quoted in the local news saying Walker “isn’t smart enough to debate anybody.” The Philadelphia Inquirer headlined its piece on a recent debate, “What we learned from a Pa. Republican Senate debate that Oz and [David] McCormick skipped,” while in Nebraska, Ryan Horn, a Republican media strategist, said Pillen was only hurting himself.

“He’s not sharing the stage with Edmund Burke. Winston Churchill’s not going to be up there,” Horn said. “We’re talking about [gubernatorial candidates] Charles Herbster and Theresa Thibodeau.”

In Minnesota, where five GOP candidates did debate, in December, Gregg Peppin, a Republican strategist in the state, said, “I would hope that we don’t get to a position where we can’t have spirited robust debates among candidates on the challenges that face our country. If we get to that point, we’ll have really lost something in our democracy.”

But even Republicans who lament the decline of debates as a tentpole of political campaigns can see the logic in some candidates passing on them — and the prospect that they will increasingly elect not to.

“If you’ve got $50 million in the pipeline to bomb your opponent back to the Stone Age, then why even put yourself out there, other than to have a very crafted message that is essentially manufactured in a PR factory,” said Carl Fogliani, a Republican strategist based in Pittsburgh, who added that voters should question the qualifications of any candidate who lacks “the courage to answer questions.”

Money and courage are only two of the factors working against debates as a lasting institution. There is also the kind of candidate that the GOP is increasingly fielding in the post-Trump era. Following the former president’s outsider example, other politically inexperienced millionaires or high-name-recognition individuals have crowded into races.

“There’s no upside to debate,” said Jason Shepherd, the chair of the Republican Party in Cobb County, Ga., “if you’re someone like Herschel Walker who is already the frontrunner … and has no experience debating.”

With the electorate as polarized as it is, the number of viewers a candidate could hope to persuade in a debate is vanishingly small. Meanwhile, for Republican base voters, skewering the media’s role in the process is a slam dunk, especially after Trump’s effective use of the media as his “fake news” foil. Today, just about 1 in 5 Republicans now say they trust the news media — a lower level of support than government, the scientific community, Silicon Valley and Wall Street.

Trump’s 2020 attacks on the Commission on Presidential Debates as a partisan outfit bent on undermining him also continue to color discussions surrounding debates. The Republican National Committee is moving forward with its threat to prohibit future presidential nominees from participating in commission-sponsored debates, pleasing Republicans who have long argued moderators are biased against them.

“Campaigns have come to the realization that no one watches debates, so the risk outweighs the reward,” said John Thomas, a Republican strategist who works on House campaigns across the country.

In the past, he said, “part of the reason you would debate is you were afraid of being shamed by the voters that public discourse, campaigning and governing requires public debate.” Now, Thomas said, “Voters are totally cool with you going on Facebook Live for 20 minutes and having a conversation with them about your policies and your agenda.”

Thomas added, “I’m just waiting for campaigns to finally come to the realization that lawn signs don’t work.”

Holly Otterbein contributed to this report.





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