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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

September 15: 2022’s Debate on Debates

An old subject has arisen unusually often in this midterm election year, and I addressed it at New York:

The received wisdom from political scientists on candidate debates is that, outside the presidential arena where everything gets attention, they rarely have a significant effect. This is mostly because viewership of anything other than a presidential debate is typically limited to the kinds of political junkies who have already made up their minds. The exception comes when a candidate makes a serious gaffe in a debate (e.g., former Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s inexplicable brain freeze during her opening remarks in a 2010 encounter she nonetheless survived); the news media will cover it, and the opposing campaign will heavily publicize it. This is why front-runners tend to avoid or minimize debates, while candidates who are in danger of losing will relentlessly call for as many as possible to maximize the opportunities for lightning to strike.

But it’s clear that the debates over debates are assuming a bigger role than usual in the 2022 midterms. There are two key reasons: a breakdown in bipartisan understanding about when and where general-election debates occur, and a couple of high-profile contests in which it’s entirely possible that debates could be decisive.

As a CNN rundown of debates on debates shows, there are an unusual number of contests this year in which, for various reasons, candidates cannot agree on the timing, frequency, or format of a debate. Some states have such a strong tradition of revisiting a particular debate venue or host that the event just happens regardless of either candidate’s strategic needs. This is the case in the Florida Senate race, as CNN notes:

“In Florida, a statewide coordinator for the long-running “Before You Vote” debates, Ron Sachs, told the Orlando Sentinel on Tuesday that Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and his opponent, Democrat Rep. Val Demings, had committed to an October 18 debate to be broadcast in the state’s 10 major media markets. It is the only debate both candidates have reportedly agreed to so far, though neither has explicitly acknowledged that publicly.”

In these cases, noncompliant candidates risk the event’s taking place with just one participant. This leads to one of the hoariest traditions of them all: the compliant candidate “debating” an empty chair or a podium. It’s a bad look for the absent candidate and gives the attending candidate an extended free ad, assuming it’s televised. It may even matter in a very close race (as it appears to have done in Georgia’s 2020 Senate runoff between Jon Ossoff and David Perdue).

But there seem to be fewer and fewer of these must-have bipartisan debates these days. The trend accelerated at the presidential level earlier this year when the Republican National Committee flat-out banned participation in events organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The group had been jointly founded by the two major parties, but in this MAGA era of Republican politics, it has been deemed “biased.” Henceforth, presidential debates will be negotiated between campaigns that are busily hurling demands and insults at each other (if they happen at all).

This trend appears to be spreading to the sub-presidential level as well. The situation in Nevada’s very close Senate race, as reported by CNN, is typical:

“After Republican Adam Laxalt won the Republican Senate primary in June, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto agreed to three debates.

“Ignoring that trio of debates, Laxalt wrote on Twitter in August that he had instead agreed to two statewide televised debates hosted by local television stations and was continuing ‘to consider other debate invites.’ Laxalt spokeswoman Courtney Holland pointed to the Republican candidate’s previous comments, noting that Cortez Masto has not agreed to the two debates Laxalt proposed and accusing the Democratic incumbent of ‘hiding from her constituents.’

“’It’s clear Laxalt can’t defend his record and wants to avoid being held accountable on the debate stage,’ said Josh Marcus-Blank, a Cortez Masto campaign spokesman.”

There are two crucial Senate races this fall in which proposed debates have assumed an outsize importance thanks to concerns about a candidate’s ability to function in that environment — or, for that matter, in the Senate itself. After almost comically misfiring on a number of fronts, Pennsylvania Republican nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz seems to have settled on drawing attention to the stroke that his opponent, John Fetterman, had earlier this year, using multiple debate challenges as a means of questioning the Democrat’s fitness for office. At first, like most front-runners, Fetterman ignored the Oz campaign’s constant taunting. But amid signs that Oz may have reversed his candidacy’s downward trajectory, Fetterman has now agreed to participate in at least one debate on October 25.

An even more unusual debate over debates developed in Georgia, where Republican nominee Herschel Walker had seemed reluctant to debate, even though, unlike Fetterman, he is at best locked in a tight race. After refusing to commit to three separate debate invitations, Walker said this week that he will meet Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock on October 14. Walker is a novice candidate with multiple issues (including mental-health troubles, shady business dealings, and previously unacknowledged children) that he would just as soon not discuss in an uncontrolled environment. He successfully avoided debates and even interviews during his primary campaign and has made strange, incoherent comments on the campaign trail when not tightly scripted. Warnock, by contrast, is an experienced candidate and a minister who has been preparing and delivering Sunday sermons for most of his adult life. You can see why Walker wouldn’t want to take him on.

It’s possible that debate-shy candidates like Walker and Fetterman always intended to debate but wanted to lower expectations so that even a weak performance would seem like a vindication. Candidates who have the most to lose from a poor debate performance will work diligently to make sure they don’t matter much at all.

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