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Opinion >  Column

Spin Control: Why the number of political debates for top offices may be declining

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, left, and Democrat Natasha Hill answer questions during the debate at KSPS studios on Thursday in Spokane.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, left, and Democrat Natasha Hill answer questions during the debate at KSPS studios on Thursday in Spokane. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Before the public has a chance to see candidates debate in a major political race, a series of private debates has taken place behind the scenes by the campaigns.

They’ve debated where the debates will take place, who should sponsor them and what the format should be. And all of those debates come after the most important one: Should we debate at all and, if so, how many times?

The answers vary among candidates, campaigns and years. By some estimates, 2022 is a year in which campaigns for some major offices like Congress and governorships are down significantly.

“The 2022 cycle has seen fewer debates between candidates for Senate and governors than previous years,” Monica Potts wrote last week for the political website FiveThirtyEight.

Among the reasons she listed was the decision by the Republican National Committee to leave the Commission on Presidential Debates, claiming it was biased against GOP candidates, which may have set the tone for races down the ballot. In some states, Democrats running for statewide office are refusing to debate opponents who deny the validity of the 2020 election or question the current one.

Another study by the Brookings Institute shows that U.S. Senate candidates in the most competitive races have debated less over the past decade. The number of debates varies with each campaign cycle because of differences in those years, research analyst Cory Galliher wrote in a recent report. But even when those variations are taken into account, the trend since 2010 has been a sharp decline in debates.

“The simplest explanation for this trend is that campaigns are more frequently deciding that debates do not benefit candidates,” Galliher wrote. “Debates can be more of a liability than a boon.”

If not a liability, debates may be a wash in terms of moving voters.

Every pol i-sci major can point to the first Richard Nixon-John Kennedy debate in 1960, where a tanned, youthful JFK bested a pale, sweaty Nixon to win over the television audience, despite the fact that most people who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon won on the issues.

But crediting the debate with propelling Kennedy into the White House ignores the fact that Nixon had been in the hospital in the weeks before the debate while Kennedy had been out shaking hands and kissing babies at campaign stops around the country. Or that the candidates had three more debates before the election that also had strong audiences.

The real impact of that first Nixon-Kennedy debate might have been that it convinced incumbents or candidates who were in the lead not to debate because it isn’t really in their best interests. There wasn’t another presidential debate until 1976. Over time, the scheduling and formatting of presidential debates became so contentious that a special commission was set up to sponsor them. The future of that commission is now in doubt with the Republican National Committee’s announced withdrawal.

Incumbents typically see less advantage in debating and are likely to try to limit their participation, said Cornell Clayton, a Washington State University political science professor and director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy.

“Challengers want as many as they can get,” he added.

In the past, an incumbent who refused to debate would get “beat up” over it in the news media, Clayton said, but not as much any more. “I wonder if there’s a declining sense of obligation on the part of the candidates.”

In Washington, debates have been sponsored by a wide range of entities, including The Spokesman-Review and other newspapers, commercial and public television stations, colleges and universities, the League of Women Voters and the Washington Debate Coalition, which is an arm of the Seattle City Club. Those entities sometimes work together to schedule and sponsor a debate, as is happening in Sunday’s U.S. Senate and Washington secretary of state debates. Other times, they compete for a slot on the candidates’ schedules.

Alicia Crank, executive director of the Washington Debate Coalition, which is one of the co-sponsors of those Spokane debates, said the group hoped to schedule two Senate debates, one each in Eastern and Western Washington, as it did in both 2016 and 2018. (There was no U.S. Senate race in 2020.)

They couldn’t get a commitment for a Western Washington debate from the campaign of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, although Republican challenger Tiffany Smiley’s campaign “agreed nearly immediately.” Eventually, the Murray campaign turned down the coalition’s invitation to a Western Washington debate in favor of a town hall hosted by a Seattle television station where questions will come from members of the audience.

The coalition has managed to schedule some congressional debates as well, although in some cases those also were harder to arrange than in previous years, Crank said.

“Some people are blaming COVID for the slow start and limited availability,” she said. Some campaigns delayed their response to the invitations, which creates a problem for debates in which multiple groups are involved in the planning and production.

In the wake of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, some campaigns raised questions about security for the candidates.

“There is a sense of actual danger,” Crank said. “I don’t downplay that at all.”

Alex Wheeler, secretary-treasurer of the State Debate Commission which is trying to establish candidate debate organizations across the country, said there is a sense that candidates are more confident in declining debate invitations or in being more particular about the ones they accept.

With social media reshaping the political landscape and allowing them to reach large numbers of voters without debating, they may be willing to take their chances and see if it hurts them at the polls in November, Wheeler said.

“I do think it will take a couple of election cycles to play out,” he added.

The number of debates for major offices in Washington has varied greatly in recent decades, depending on the year and the candidate. It often follows the standard pattern of a challenger wanting more – sometimes much more – than an incumbent will accept.

In 1980, longtime U.S. Sen. Warren G. Magnuson refused to debate or even appear jointly with state Attorney General Slade Gorton, who had challenged him to debates. Six years later, Gorton debated Democratic challenger Brock Adams twice and did two other joint appearances, although Adams wanted more.

Gorton lost in 1986 but ran for the other seat in 1988, and only did one debate with Democrat Mike Lowry. In 2000, then-challenger Maria Cantwell wanted to debate Gorton six times; they debated once, in Spokane, late in the campaign after significant sniping between the staffs.

In the 2012 U.S. Senate campaign, Republican challenger Michael Baumgartner, then a state senator and now Spokane County treasurer, initially challenged incumbent Maria Cantwell to 39 debates, which would be one for each county in the state. Democratic challenger Rich Cowan challenged U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers to 10 debates, one for each county in Eastern Washington’s 5th District.

Neither incumbent took the bait, although McMorris Rodgers said she’d debate 10 times if Cantwell would debate 39 times.

Baumgartner later dropped his challenge to 10, one for each congressional district. They held one debate, taped at Seattle’s public television station and shown around the state. McMorris Rodgers and Cowan debated twice, once on KSPS-TV and a few days later at a Greater Spokane Inc. breakfast.

The modern record for U.S. Senate debates in Washington was set in 1992, when Adams retired and the seat he won from Gorton was vacant. Democrat Patty Murray, then a state senator, and U.S. Rep. Rod Chandler, a Republican, debated five times – in Vancouver, Seattle, Olympia and twice in Spokane – plus did a joint radio session after their first Spokane debate. Since that first campaign, Murray has usually done two debates or, like this year, a debate and a joint town hall session.

One exception to the rule that incumbents usually try to duck debates was U.S. Rep. Tom Foley, who usually agreed to as many debates as he could fit into the schedule after the primary and the House recessed for campaigning. When he first ran in 1964, Foley had trouble getting U.S. Rep. Walt Horan to agree to a debate and contended an incumbent always has a duty to debate their record. Some Foley challengers declined to debate, but others took up the challenge. In his final campaign against Republican George Nethercutt, the two debated nine times in the seven weeks between the primary and the general election.

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