With few debates in recent Senate races, observers weigh in on whether Kentucky needs debate commission

10/02/2016 04:00 PM

When U.S. Sen. Rand Paul first won his seat in 2010, he squared off against Democrat Jack Conway in five debates, one televised on Fox News, en route to an 11-point win.

The rigor of that debate schedule was an anomaly in recent Kentucky U.S. Senate campaigns, however. So far, Paul’s campaign hasn’t agreed to any debates against Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, although it says the two will meet before voters hit the polls Nov. 8.

Paul seems to be following a strategy set by fellow GOP incumbents in recent cycles here. Former Sen. Jim Bunning, who won by six-tenths of a percentage point, initially refused to debate ex-Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo at all in his 2004 re-election campaign before meeting him screen-to-face in a debate held in WKYT-TV’s Lexington studio, appearing remotely from Washington.

Bunning skipped that year’s Kentucky Educational Television debate, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell followed suit in his 2008 re-election battle against Democrat Bruce Lunsford. That year, the two debates between McConnell and Lunsford went untelevised as McConnell won by 6 points.

McConnell appeared on “Kentucky Tonight” with his 2014 foe, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, in their only formal debate before McConnell’s 15-point victory despite offers and counteroffers from the campaigns for others.

Other states have turned to nonpartisan commissions modeled after the Commission on Presidential Debates to facilitate debate schedules in major campaigns, notably Indiana and Utah.

While some interviewed by Pure Politics expressed support for a similar concept to encourage regular debates in Kentucky races, one Republican strategist said he doesn’t see much demand for such a commission from voters.

“In Kentucky, voters do not demand, currently, for debates to exist,” said Les Fugate, a GOP strategist. “So until that time, even if there was a debate commission, which isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but until you get voters demanding that the candidates debate, it won’t matter.”

Many voters “feel overwhelmed by information, particularly in big races,” he continued.

“They get so much direct mail, so much television and digital ads that the last thing they are asking for are more debates. Now that’s not saying they shouldn’t occur, but our voters, they just don’t have interest, and it’s not like the ratings on debates are through the roof.”

But Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism, and Democratic consultant Matt Erwin say the deluge of campaign advertising is a reason that voters need to hear candidates tussle on policy issues.

“Messages are provided to voters through outside groups that are funded by anonymous sources, and it’s hard to argue that voters don’t deserve to hear candidates not only express their views and opinions, but have their views and opinions critiqued by their opponent in a debate format,” Erwin said. “It’s simply the best way for voters to know what each candidate believes in and how they plan on governing.”

Cross said it would take respected leaders from the Republican Party of Kentucky and Kentucky Democratic Party to formulate such a debate commission in Kentucky.

Still, KET “has done a good job” in scheduling head-to-head forums for federal and statewide campaigns on “Kentucky Tonight,” he says.

“Increasingly, there’s very little shared space in campaigns,” Cross said. “People get their information increasingly from sources that are partisan or from social media, and they tend to live in an echo chamber or a bubble. People seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs, and that’s the media environment in which we live.

“It’s all the more important in an environment like that for candidates to debate issues together with an audience that is diverse.”

While Gray is the underdog against Paul — the election forecasting website FiveThirtyEight gives the Democrat a 10.1 percent chance to beat the incumbent and Sabato’s Crystal Ball grades the race ‘safe Republican’ — Erwin says that shouldn’t be a factor in scheduling debates, regardless of the political calculus.

“If one campaign thinks that they are in the driver’s seat in a race, they may have a desire to limit the number of debates, thereby limiting the number of potential gaffes,” Erwin said. “… That’s good politics, but it’s bad government.”

Gray, who has repeatedly called on Paul to schedule debates in their race, would support the concept of a debate commission, according to his spokeswoman, Cathy Lindsey.

“Kentuckians deserve to hear from the people vying to represent them — something Rand Paul has dodged at every opportunity this year,” she said in a statement. “If a debate commission is required to facilitate that process and ensure candidates are held accountable, then that is something Mayor Gray would encourage and support.”

Kelsey Cooper, Paul’s spokeswoman, said Gray is concentrating on debates “to avoid discussing his support of Hillary Clinton and her anti-coal agenda.”

“Dr. Rand Paul has been focused on talking about the issues in his over 110 town halls across the Commonwealth and daily interviews with Kentucky media,” Cooper said in a statement.

“We’ve already said we will debate this fall, so his continued focus on this rather than the issues Kentuckians care about is starting to look increasingly desperate and transparent.”

Despite assurances from Paul’s campaign that a debate is forthcoming, Cross said it would be “shameful” if this year’s Senate race concluded without a face-to-face forum.

“We’re electing a United States senator for the next six years,” he said. “Six years.”


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