Deflated debate stages
Midterm candidates are either refusing to debate or waiting until the last second
Longtime Republican campaign strategist Mark Weaver started his career directing one of former President Ronald Reagan's final television appearances in 1993. He remembers handing Reagan the speech script and watching the actor and orator mark it up with speech cues. Since then, Weaver has coached dozens of high-profile campaigns, training Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and others how to win over a crowd in a televised debate. But now he says more Americans would rather watch reality TV than an hour of political discussion. With fewer viewers, candidates are beginning to view the debate stage as optional.
After weeks of refusing invitations to debate, U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance of Ohio agreed this week to face his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, on Oct. 17. Candidates in most swing states this cycle—including Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia—have either refused the common campaign practice or have delayed scheduling a showing until just a month before the Election Day.
Weaver says the trend is not partisan. Candidates who are already ahead in the polls have tended to decline debate invitations, likely for fear of making a public gaffe that could cost valuable points. That, along with declining viewership numbers, perceived media bias, and hostile debate styles could mean voters will see few to no public, unscripted appearances from their candidates.
U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., skipped four primary debates earlier this year and has continued to refuse to face his Democratic opponent for U.S. Senate, Cheri Beasley. Pennsylvania Republican governor candidate and current state senator Doug Mastriano said he does not trust biased moderators to conduct a fair debate. He has avoided any mainstream media appearances, as well. In Arizona, Katie Hobbs, the Democratic candidate for governor and current secretary of state, declined in a letter to participate in the Arizona Clean Elections Commission debates because a recent debate was “a circus that insults and embarrasses Arizonans.” It was the only opportunity presented so far Hobbs and GOP candidate Kari Lake to face off in public.
“Some candidates have not debated and gone on to win without any problems. Other candidates notice, and go, ‘You know what? So-and-so last year didn’t debate, and he won. And she didn’t debate and she won. So let’s just say no.’” Weaver said. “Because others have refused with little repercussions. That makes other campaigns bold enough to say no.”
Other candidates are experiencing last-minute changes of heart. In Pennsylvania, U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz has been criticizing Democratic counterpart John Fetterman for months about his few campaign trail appearances and refusal to debate. Fetterman suffered a stroke in May, just days before the primary. His campaign team said he is recovering well but has had to take things slower and still struggles with some auditory issues. Fetterman finally agreed to one debate with Oz at the end of October but requested extra accommodations, including closed captioning and extra response time. Oz fired back with extra requests of his own, so Pennsylvanians may or may not see the two candidates on a televised debate.
In Georgia, Republican Herschel Walker, candidate for U.S. Senate, also had a change of heart and accepted a debate invitation for Oct. 14, against the Democratic incumbent, Raphael Warnock. But then Walker attempted to lower public expectations of his first debate appearance. The Cook Political Report designates the close race a toss-up.
“I’m this country boy, you know, I’m not that smart,” he told reporters at a campaign stop earlier this month. “[Warnock is] a smart man, wears these nice suits. So he’s going to show up there, embarrass me at the debate. And I’m just waiting, you know, I’ll show up and I’m [going to] do my best.”
Mastriano refused media-sponsored debates with opponent Josh Shapiro, but he did propose an alternative: two debates, one moderated by a conservative host and the other by a liberal one. Shapiro declined. Heritage Foundation fellow Hans von Spakovsky moderated a July debate in Nashville between three Republican state congressional candidates. He says the format of election debates has become so partisan that there is little value in them for either candidates or constituents anymore.
“A lot of candidates, particularly conservatives, can see that debates that are handled by reporters and journalists are staged,” Von Spakovsky told me. “Instead of trying to moderate a real discussion of issues, they often appear to be asking their questions and formulating their questions with a ‘gotcha’ attitude.”
Instead, von Spakovsky advocates a structure that replaces journalists with analysts and experts. He said as long as both candidates can agree on someone, this will ensure a more level playing field: “Debates are still a good idea. But I don’t think you’re gonna convince anybody to do it unless you can restructure them in a way in which you’re going to get more substantive discussions of issues. The moderators’ jobs are not to argue with the candidates, which we have seen in recent debates. Their job is to ask good, informed questions.”
Karen Owen is an associate professor of political science at the University of West Georgia and acting president of the Georgia Political Science Association. She is less hopeful about a successful reformatting but agrees that something needs to change.
“Debates allowed the public to really know the candidates and the issues,” Owen said. “It was also a way for voters to judge the likeability of a candidate. In the last few years, there’s been a change with candidates and the idea of debating, because debate is different. How we actually talk to each other, with respect for opposing ideas, has changed.”
Debate dodging could extend beyond 2022. In April, the Republican National Committee withdrew from the Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan group tasked with scheduling debates for presidential candidates. RNC spokesperson Ronna McDaniel said the commission was too biased, so the 2024 GOP candidates will be looking for other platforms if they debate at all.
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