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Shawn Vestal: Debate revealed more about temperament and style than political positions

Patty Murray, left, and Tiffany Smiley during a debate on the campus of Gonzaga University in Spokane on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022.   (Jesse Tinsley )

One of the great benefits of candidate debates is not that they unearth unknown positions or opinions, but that they give us a chance to see the temperament and demeanor of candidates under pressure, to see how they act when challenged, to see how they think, or don’t, on their feet.

On those terms, Sunday’s debate between Sen. Patty Murray and challenger Tiffany Smiley was illuminating indeed. The general narrative of that race of late has been that Smiley is catching up, with polls showing a narrowing, but still prohibitive, lead for the longtime incumbent. The narrative in right-wing media – where Smiley has been showered with adoring attention – has tended to go even further in asserting that she has a real shot at winning.

Maybe she does. But the picture Smiley presented Sunday night at “The Battle for the Senate” debate, as well as the deeply nasty tone of her most recent ads, offers a portrait not of a confident challenger making a stretch run, but of someone flailing as they sink within sight of the shore.

“Do you believe me and my family are a threat to democracy, Senator Murray?” Smiley all but shouted, in a tone of furious umbrage, at the incumbent’s questioning of Smiley’s inarguable wishy-washiness on the question of election fraud.

She gave this red-faced response instead of taking a clear line on Trump’s responsibility for Jan. 6. It was one of several moments when Smiley seemed to lose – or come close to losing – her cool as she attacked Murray, often deploying a gusher of sentences that bore little relationship to the question asked or to each other.

She sometimes glared at Murray, then abruptly seemed to remember to flash a big smile. She shouted objections as Murray was speaking. And her seemingly deep sense of offense at the criticisms Murray has levied was bizarre, given the wild handfuls of mud she was slinging herself.

“Crime’s out of control. Patty Murray’s to blame,” she said, boiling the typical election-season scare into a simplistic cudgel. She liked the line so much she repeated it a few minutes later while dodging a question about gun violence: “Crime is out of control. Senator Murray, you’re to blame.”

In recent TV ads, Smiley has taken this reductio ad absurdum even further, laying the blame for the death of a toddler who accidentally took fentanyl at Murray’s feet. It’s a scummy move, if sadly typical for a candidate trying to close a gap.

Meanwhile, Murray was quiet, sober, direct – a little boring. She definitely attacked Smiley, though mildly – tying her to Mitch McConnell or suggesting that her stated opposition to a federal abortion ban was not to be trusted – and her responses to Smiley’s attacks reflected exasperation more than fury.

“How much can you correct in 30 seconds?” she asked at one point.

She displayed more depth on legislation and policy, while Smiley displayed more depth on the generic talking points of her team – crime, “energy independence,” immigration, inflation – and on beating the clichéd drum that Murray is an out-of-touch Washington insider.

But both candidates mostly answered as you would have expected. Only those who haven’t paid attention would have learned much about their positions. Murray emphasized abortion rights, defending elections, lowering health care costs – and talked about her record. Smiley beat the drum of crime, inflation, and border scares – and shared, more than once, the stirring story of her husband’s loss of sight following a suicide bombing while he was serving in Iraq.

You’d have to concede that Murray has the advantage of many years in the political arena, and give Smiley a break for being a newcomer. Polish is not everything, after all.

But the main takeaway from the only debate in this race was that it gave us the first unfiltered, extended look at Smiley under pressure. It was truly a contrast of temperament and style. If it seems shallow or unimportant to pay attention to that, I would argue that style is a crucial form of political substance – particularly in campaigning and particularly if you’re trying to draw voters away from an incumbent in a state where your party puts you at an electoral disadvantage.

That’s the position Smiley is in now. The latest WA Poll shows Murray at 49% and Smiley at 41%. (FiveThirtyEight’s polling average shows Murray with a 9% lead; some other election trackers have moved the race from “solidly” favoring Murray to “likely” favoring her.)

In July, that divide was 51% to 33%. Murray won 52% of the primary vote, and Smiley won 34%.

In other words, Murray has stayed at roughly the same place, or possibly declined a little bit, while Smiley has made gains – some of that just reflects the consolidation of Republican votes after a huge primary. As pollster H. Stuart Elway noted in a recent Spokesman-Review story, when a candidate has the support of half or more of the voters, their opponent can’t just win just by claiming the undecideds.

They have to inspire defections.

And so the question of style looms large. The angry, fact-free, demonizing approach – My opponent is the cause of rising crime! – is ascendant and effective in many quarters of American politics. But it works best to whip up a base, not draw moderates away from Democrats in a blue state.

Obviously, in a close race, candidates will attack each other. Murray and Smiley have been doing so for a while now, which is how you know this race is closer than usual. Nor is it surprising for a trailing candidate to go ever deeper into the mire as the election nears.

But the debate gave voters a good look at Angry Smiley. You have to wonder if it will help her much in her uphill climb.

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