Debating Over Debates: Custom Faces Skepticism Marketing Campaign

By MEG KINNARD, Related Press

COLUMBIA, SC (AP) — Under pressure from his Republican rival, Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman said this week he would participate in only one debate before the November election.

In Georgia, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker are still working through the main points of what a debate might look like, even as they appear to be closing in on an agreement. And in Arizona, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs declined a televised debate with Republican Kari Lake.

With the fall campaign fast approaching, the age-old custom of televised debates as a discussion forum for voters to assess candidates is often the latest victim of the protection of fixed media and powerful digital platforms. , as well as the country’s polarized political weather. For some Republicans, avoiding the debates is an opportunity to avoid a media construct that some within the social rally call biased and align themselves with Donald Trump, who has lambasted the presidential debates. Some Democrats, including Hobbs, pointed to the raucous GOP debates of the first season as a motive to avoid tangling with their opponents.

Despite such skepticism, veteran political guide Terry Sullivan defended the debates as “the only forum where candidates are forced to answer questions they don’t want to answer.”

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“They’re not going to do it with their TV ads,” added Sullivan, who managed GOP Sen. Jim DeMint’s 2004 candidacy in South Carolina and handled media for the Florida senator’s presidential effort. Marco Rubio in 2016. “And in stump appearances, press conferences, they’ll get away, they’ll dodge.”

And usually, Sullivan added, it’s the media coverage of what’s happening on stage, rather than the back-and-forth itself, that can make a much bigger impression.

In what “should have been the most boring debate in human history,” Sullivan said a 2004 panelist interviewing DeMint and Democrat Inez Tenenbaum asked DeMint if he agreed with a tenet of the state’s GOP platform against brazen gays. scholars in public colleges in South Carolina.

“This guy rocked the race for the next three months,” Sullivan said, noting headlines he called “DeMint wants to fire gay academics.”

DeMint went on to win the open seat by nearly 10 points, a margin typical of South Carolina’s last statewide election. But in other aggressive states, Sullivan said, a debate can work “a great way to find out where the candidates stand on the issues.”

In addition to thousands of impressions of successful candidates in earned media and repackaged music videos, debate footage can also propel candidates’ messages wider — and more cheaply — than TV ad buys, said Michael Wukela, a South Carolina Democratic media guide and Vermont veteran. Presidential candidacies of Senator Bernie Sanders.

“You get it all at once,” Wukela said of a debate over the value of airtime that will otherwise cost thousands and thousands. “It’s like a Super Bowl commercial.”

Refusal to participate may attract the ire of rivals. Republicans whom Walker refused to debate in front of the Georgian major criticized him as ill-prepared to take on Warnock, a gifted orator.

“If you can’t get on stage and debate with your fellow Republicans, how the hell are you going to debate Raphael Warnock in a normal election?” Latham Saddler, a Navy veteran and former Trump administration official who was among the Five Tough Walker Republicans, asked. “Often for those who hide, you hide for a motive.”

Walker repeatedly proclaimed his eagerness to face Warnock in the fall, but instead of accepting Warnock’s issue in a few debates, he accepted an invitation to another. This week, Warnock said he would participate in this debate, if Walker would agree to another forum Warnock wanted. This back and forth remains unresolved.

Various Senate competitions also participate.

In North Carolina, where U.S. Representative Ted Budd skipped four major Republican debates when running for the U.S. Senate, said Friday he would not settle for an invitation from the North Carolina Affiliation of Broadcasters to debate the Democrat Cheri Beasley, as the 2nd lead for a presumably closed normal election. Budd said he accepted an invitation to a cable debate, but there is no agreement with Beasley about it.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, Republican candidate for the Pennsylvania Senate, asked reporters this week what would happen if voters elected a senator who had in no way “answered a legitimate question from a voter, a newscaster news in an unrecorded setting, in a debate phase?” citing Fetterman’s lack of campaigning as he recovers from a stroke.

Fetterman’s campaign said he would take part in a televised debate in October, but gave no other details, including why he would only take part in one debate. Oz’s marketing campaign immediately called it a “secret debate,” without specifying when or where.

In the race for governor of Pennsylvania, Republican candidate Doug Mastriano rejected a media-moderated debate and instead booked a pavilion ballroom on Oct. 22 and chose himself a partisan moderator: Mercedes Schlapp, who served as director of Trump’s strategic communications at the White House and is married to the president of the American Conservative Union.

Democrat Josh Shapiro’s campaign said Mastriano’s refusal to simply accept an unbiased moderator blasted a few dozen invites from news organizations and other teams.

Some incumbents with an advantage over their rivals have rebuffed requests for multiple debates, weary of taking on stage danger that could change the course of their marketing campaign.

South Carolina Democrat Joe Cunningham called for four campaign debates with Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, whose campaign dismissed the request as a “stunt” and ultimately agreed to a match. In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott granted Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke just one debate — on a Friday night in the heart of high school football season, which will air as distracted voters will be at the start of the games instead. . across the state.

Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis initially engaged in a statewide televised debate with his Democratic opponent before U.S. Representative Charlie Crist – who collapsed for not accepting major debates – received the nomination from his party. Now the 2 are set to face off in a single debate, proven only on a West Palm Seaside TV channel.

Michigan Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Republican candidate Tudor Dixon finally agreed to a single debate in October after a schedule change. Whitmer announced last month that she would take part in two statewide televised debates, a call her campaign said was “by precedent.” Dixon, who criticized Whitmer for not debating before voters were able to send in mail-in ballots, eventually agreed to the solo meeting.

Noting that the uncertainty of the proceedings will be “terrifying” for all parties involved, Wukela acknowledged the incumbents’ reluctance to allow their opponents genteel alternatives to assimilate to the workplace or its current occupant.

“Strom Thurmond refused to debate any of his opponents,” Wukela said of the longtime South Carolina Democratic-turned-Republican governor and senator. “If I bought a four touchdown lead, why would I ever throw the ball?”

Related Press author Sara Burnett in Chicago contributed to this report.

Meg Kinnard will be contacted at

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William L. Hart