Candidates Sidestep Debates

Analysts say events provide coverage worth millions
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 10, 2022 1:25 PM CDT
Debates Fade From Campaigns
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt speaks Saturday during a debate with Gov. Laura Kelly at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson.   (Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

Under pressure from his Republican rival, Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman said this week he would participate in one debate before the November election. In Georgia, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker are still working through the details of what a debate might look like, though they appear to be inching closer to a deal. And in Arizona, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Katie Hobbs has declined a televised debate with Republican Kari Lake. The tradition of televised debates as a forum for voters to evaluate candidates may be the latest casualty of constant media coverage and powerful digital platforms, as well as the nation's polarized political climate, the AP reports.

For some Republicans, eschewing debates lets them sidestep a media structure some in the party deride as biased and align with Donald Trump, who has blasted presidential debates. Some Democrats, including Hobbs, have pointed to raucous GOP debates from the primary season as a reason to avoid tangling with their opponents. In the face of such skepticism, veteran political consultant Terry Sullivan defended debates as "the one forum where candidates are forced into answering questions that they don't want to answer." On the stump and in press conferences, he said, candidates can evade and dodge tough issues. And sometimes, Sullivan added, it's the media coverage of what happens onstage, rather than the back-and-forth itself, that can make a bigger impression.

In addition to winning candidates thousands of impressions in earned media and repackaged video clips, debate footage can propel candidates' messages far more broadly —and cheaply—than could television ad buys, said Michael Wukela, a South Carolina Democratic media consultant. "You're getting that in one shot," Wukela said of a debate appearance being worth airtime that would otherwise cost millions. "That's like a Super Bowl ad." Refusal to participate can draw ire from rivals, per the AP. The Republicans whom Walker refused to debate ahead of Georgia's primary critiqued him as ill-prepared to take on Warnock, a skilled orator. "Usually if you're hiding, you're hiding for a reason," said Latham Saddler, one of Walker's GOP rivals. Other Senate contests are playing out similarly.

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In Pennsylvania's governor’s race, GOP nominee Doug Mastriano rejected a media-moderated debate and instead reserved a ballroom and picked a partisan moderator. Democrat Josh Shapiro's campaign said Mastriano's refusal to accept an independent moderator blew up about a dozen invitations from news organizations and other groups. Some incumbents with a lead rebuffed requests for multiple debates, uninterested in taking a risk onstage. South Carolina Democrat Joe Cunningham called for four general-election debates with Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, whose campaign dismissed the request as a "stunt" and agreed to one matchup. In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott granted a single debate to Democrat Beto O'Rourke—on a Friday night in high school football season, which will be broadcast as voters are instead watching games around the state.

(More political debate stories.)

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