Debating over debates: Campaign tradition faces skepticism

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

In Georgia, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker are still working through the details of what a debate might look like, though they appear to be inching closer to a deal. And in Arizona, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Katie Hobbs has declined a televised debate with Republican Kari Lake.

With the fall campaign rapidly approaching, the time-honored tradition of televised debates as a forum for voters to evaluate candidates may be the latest casualty of constant media coverage and powerful digital platforms, as well as the nation’s polarized political climate. For some Republicans, eschewing debates is a chance to sidestep a media structure some in the party deride as biased and align with Donald Trump, who has blasted presidential debates. Some Democrats, including Hobbs, have pointed to raucous GOP debates from the primary season as a reason to avoid tangling with their opponents.

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

“They’re not going to do it in their TV commercials,” added Sullivan, who managed GOP Sen. Jim DeMint’s 2004 bid in South Carolina and handled media for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential effort. “And in stump appearances, press conferences, they can evade, they can dodge.”

And sometimes, Sullivan added, it’s the media coverage of what happens onstage, rather than the back-and-forth itself, that can make a bigger impression.

In what “should have been the most boring debate in the history of mankind,” Sullivan said that a 2004 panelist questioning DeMint and Democrat Inez Tenenbaum asked DeMint if he agreed with a state GOP platform tenet in opposition of openly gay teachers in South Carolina’s public schools.

“That kind of turned the race on its head for the next three months,” Sullivan said, noting headlines he characterized as “DeMint wants to fire gay teachers.”

DeMint went on to win the open seat by nearly 10 percentage points, a margin typical in recent South Carolina statewide elections. But in more competitive states, Sullivan said, a debate can serve as “a good way to find out where candidates are on the issues.”

In addition to winning candidates thousands of impressions in earned media and repackaged video clips, debate footage can also propel candidates’ messages far more broadly — and cheaply — than could television ad buys, said Michael Wukela, a South Carolina Democratic media consultant and veteran of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bids.

“You’re getting that in one shot,” Wukela said, of a debate appearance being worth airtime that would otherwise cost millions. “That’s like a Super Bowl ad.”

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