(WASHINGTON) — Democrats in key swing states like Arizona and Michigan have refused to face opponents who espouse the false claim that the 2020 race was stolen from former President Donald Trump.
These Democratic politicians say they want to avoid combative spectacles with people who are attacking the election system without evidence — suggesting their rivals are too far outside the mainstream to be worth engaging.
But that choice is not without criticism as some outside experts note it has strategic value, too.
“Candidates who are ahead in the polls and believe that they will be able to win without debates are advantaged by not debating. They will find a reason to justify their decision — and in this case, what you’re seeing is a reason to justify a decision among candidates who believe they’re going to be able to win without debating,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, told ABC News.
Some major Republicans, like Nevada Senate hopeful Adam Laxalt, have so far also opted against debates.
“Statewide debates attract very low viewership. But from a normative standpoint, it is desirable for the electorate to be able to see the candidates side-by-side and for the process to have journalists be given the opportunity to ask tough questions,” Jamieson said.
She said the biggest problem with not debating “is not who gains electoral advantage, but what is the public and the press not able to know as a result of that decision?”
“One would hope that candidates would perceive the advantage to the electoral process in deciding to debate, even if they find their opposing candidate unworthy of exchange,” Jamieson said, adding: “If you think that you are incapable of presenting yourself well in a debate, you’re less likely to agree to one, whether you are ahead or behind in the polls. That doesn’t mean that we should absolve candidates of the responsibility to debate.”
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said candidates are usually able to “get away with canceling debates without much of a penalty” as voters don’t usually see the events as key to their choices.
While the trend has a new twist this cycle, Sabato said the resistance to debating has a long history.
“Every single year almost all candidates will debate about debates — how many there should be, how long they should be, where they should be, what subjects they should cover. This has become a permanent part of campaigning, and most people just tune it out because it doesn’t affect their lives,” he said. “It has no real impact on your campaign or your likelihood to win. And if you think of the other candidate as the beginning of the collapse of Western civilization then why not say, ‘I’m not putting myself through that."”
In Arizona, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, the Democratic nominee for governor, declined to debate Republican opponent Kari Lake even after the Citizens Clean Elections Commission moved its deadline to allow Hobbs’ team more time to negotiate the terms. Hobbs said she felt it wouldn’t be worthwhile.
“We all saw the spectacle [Lake] created in the GOP primary,” she said in late September.
Lake painted Hobbs as having something to hide for refusing to debate and, in a series of Twitter videos, taunted her opponent to face her.
In Michigan, incumbent Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel offered a similar rationale as Hobbs, saying GOP rival Matt DePerno — who has claimed “election fraud” in 2020 — operates by a different “set of facts” so a debate with him wouldn’t be “serious” or helpful to voters.
Nessel also raised the potential of being confined by codes of ethics in having to respond to DePerno, whom Nessel has alleged was a “prime instigator” in a plot to illegally access voting machines in a bid to find evidence to overturn the 2020 presidential results. DePerno has not been charged and has said he is being politically persecuted.
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, another battleground state, progress toward a gubernatorial debate ground to a halt not because of the Democrat but because of the Republican: Doug Mastriano — who was in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 and helped lead the effort to challenge the 2020 results in his state — tried to rewrite traditional debate rules including allowing the candidates to each select a moderator. A spokesman for Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general, ruled out accepting Mastriano’s terms, calling the move a “stunt” that threatened “good-faith debate negotiations.”
Here is the backstory on some of the major debates that won’t happen:
Bucking 20 years of Arizona campaign tradition, Hobbs declined to debate her Republican opponent in the only gubernatorial debate, which was set for next week. Hobbs cited Lake’s performance in a GOP primary forum as having made Arizona “the butt of late-night TV jokes.”
“You can’t debate a conspiracy theorist,” Hobbs’ campaign manager, Nicole DeMont, said at a public meeting with the debate commission last month.
But as election deniers dominate the Republican side of the statewide ballot, Hobbs is the only Democratic nominee that declined to face one on the debate stage. Barrett Marson, a Republican strategist in Arizona who isn’t working with Lake, criticized that reasoning since Hobbs also skipped a Democratic primary debate with her long-shot opponent then, Marco Lopez — “someone who’s not an election denier,” Marson noted.
“Instead of practicing against Marco Lopez, she didn’t debate then because she’s probably just not a very good debater,” he said.
Hobbs’ campaign declined to comment to ABC News for this story.
At Arizona State University last month, she dismissed 76-year-old supporter Linda Martini, who drove from Phoenix to Tempe to help register voters, after Martini tried to ask Hobbs why she won’t debate.
“Let’s not do this here,” Hobbs told Martini. “We need to talk about this later,” she said, and she walked away with her team.
Martini subsequently told reporters, “She’s got to debate … It’s bad for her not to.”
“The people want to see her on TV. I can tell you from the senior community that I know best, they want to see her,” Martini added. “Unless she could give a really good reason why, she has to debate.”
Hobbs insisted to reporters last week that she’s “not afraid” of debating Lake but wants to have “a substantive conversation.”
Lake, who according to FiveThirtyEight’s analysis has been closing the gap with Hobbs in recent polling, told ABC News last week that Hobbs’ explanation is nothing more than an “excuse.”
“They know that the Democrats are weak candidates with policies that Americans don’t want,” Lake argued.
Lake went on to try to recast her election denialism as being about “honesty and faith” and said Hobbs should challenge her directly: “If she’s got a problem with where I stand on elections … then she should show up Oct. 12, and I’d love to debate her on that.”
Marson, the Republican strategist, believes Hobbs’ team has determined she will be better off skipping the debate than attending — “but I think that voters want to see it and are really questioning, What are you afraid of?”
“If Kari Lake wants to rant and rave for an hour on stage, then voters would see that and then make their own decisions,” Marson added. “We’ve seen recently Kari try to soften her image, and she’s gonna be able to use this unfettered access to voters to soften her image and not ever face a tough point from Katie Hobbs.”
Bill Scheel, a longtime consultant to Democrats in the state, agreed with Marson that debate participation may not swing races but called it a “missed opportunity.”
“This election is not going to be decided by whether someone debates or not. The actual viewership on public TV would be a tiny fraction of the overall electorate, but I really do think it’s a missed opportunity for Hobbs. She’s still not clearly defined for most Arizona voters,” he said.
Michigan Attorney General Nessel, who is seeking reelection, decided she won’t debate DePerno, her Republican opponent, because she thinks he wouldn’t participate in a “serious” event to “educate and inform voters.”
“You have to have two candidates that are willing to abide by a set of facts that actually exist,” she told ABC News in an interview in Lansing last week.
“You can’t have separate sets of facts, and the things that Mr. DePerno often says, he’s not dealing with facts. He’s literally lying. He’s making up things,” Nessel contended. “And by giving him the platform to disseminate this kind of disinformation is a disservice to the voters in this state.”
She added that prosecutorial codes of ethics are also tying her hands because of an investigation into DePerno and others. The case is being overseen by an outside prosecutor at Nessel’s request. Still, she said, DePerno could raise the investigation on stage if they were to debate and twist the details while she would be limited in responding.
DePerno declined to comment to ABC News or respond to Nessel’s criticism.
The attorney general, who is gay, also believes her identity as a member of the LGBTQ community may be weaponized against her if she were to debate DePerno, who has referred to her by the derogatory label “General Groomer.”
“It’s not just a matter of insulting me. It’s insulting to the at least half a million residents in my state who also identify as openly LGBTA, and I’m not going to allow him to disparage me like that. I’m not going to allow him to disparage the hundreds of thousands of residents that I represent,” Nessel told ABC News.
Debate negotiations in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race have devolved into accusations of cowardice and of theatrics amid attempts by Mastriano, the Republican candidate, to rewrite traditional rules.
In an August letter to Shapiro, his Democratic opponent, Mastriano proposed his own set of guidelines, which would ban news outlets from holding exclusive broadcast rights over the debates and would let each candidate choose a moderator.
A Shapiro spokesman called the proposal “a stunt” and an excuse by Mastriano to avoid questions. He has shunned traditional media while focusing on conservative grassroots efforts.
“It’s unfortunate that Doug Mastriano has recklessly decided to blow up good-faith debate negotiations with media outlets across the Commonwealth,” the Shapiro spokesman, Will Simons, said in a statement at the time.
Mastriano has tried to frame Shapiro as cowardly for not accepting his terms and called Shapiro “reluctant” to face him. Last month, he invited Shapiro to what he said would be a debate in central Pennsylvania featuring Mercedes Schlapp, a former aide to Trump, as a moderator.
“Doug Mastriano’s unserious proposal is an obvious stunt to avoid any real questions about his extreme agenda and record of conduct by dictating his own rules for debates,” Simons said last week in a statement to ABC News.
“Nobody gets to pick their own moderators or set their own terms,” he added.
In the meantime, counties have already begun sending absentee ballots to voters.
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