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Frustrated congressional challengers acknowledge uphill battle in flushing incumbents out of 'hiding'

Teresa Collett

They admit now they might have been a bit naïve.

Several challengers for congressional seats believed that there would be opportunities for Lincoln-Douglas type of debates, where throngs of interested observers would hear the candidates thrash out the great issues of the day.

"I might be a little guilty of having been naïve," said Republican Teresa Collett, the University of St. Thomas law professor who is running against entrenched Democrat Betty McCollum in the 4th District. "I had hoped there would be chances to debate. I'd hoped there would be chances for conversations about ideas. But after I was endorsed, it became pretty clear it was not going to happen."

Collett says that other than one forum in White Bear Lake, the McCollum campaign has turned down requests for more debates, with the exception of a Minnesota Public Radio debate that will take place just before the election.

A bipartisan problem
This seems to be a bipartisan problem.

Democrat Jim Meffert, who is challenging incumbent Erik Paulsen in the 3rd District, and Democrat Shelley Madore, who is challenging incumbent John Kline in the 2nd District, sound very much like Collett when the subject of debates comes up.

Jim Meffert
Jim Meffert

They all challenged their opponents to debate. They all found their challenges ignored.

Kline is especially good at debate avoidance, and Madore, a former state legislator, is especially frustrated.

She said she's tried to get the League of Women Voters, Chambers of Commerce and newspapers in the district to arrange debates. But always, she said, Kline has said, "No." It appears the only time the two will meet face to face is for 25 minutes on a MPR debate late next month.

So frustrated is Madore that she tried to personally grab the incumbent to encourage debate.

"I saw that he was going to attend the Randolph chicken barbecue," Madore said. "So I said, 'I'm going to find him.' I grabbed my cameraman and caught up with him."

The two had a conversation that she said went something like this:

Madore: "Hello."

Kline: "Hello. Happy you won your primary."

Madore: "I'm looking forward to lively debates."

Kline: "Well, we'll have to see how that goes."

From a debate standpoint, it hasn't gone well for Madore, Collett or Meffert, who has had only a couple of short forums with Paulsen.

Few debates mean few chances to reach voters
Few debates mean not only few opportunities to stand before people and talk about issues — and attempt to sell your own point of view — but also little media coverage.

In this day of smaller newsrooms, debates are an easy way for journalists to cover a race. A debate brings candidates together in one neat setting. Differences can be spelled out quickly. A reporter fills a notebook, writes a story and there's a headline in the paper, maybe even quick sound bites on the evening news.

Shelley Madore
Shelley Madore

No debates, though, mean a lot less coverage, especially in a year with a much-covered gubernatorial race.

Madore says she's even called local newspapers in the district, encouraging editors to interview her on subjects that she thinks should be compelling in this race — among them Kline's refusal to use earmarks to bring home projects to the district. She specifically points to the shabby conditions of the Hastings bridge.

"These projects need federal funding," she said. "I call the newspaper in Hastings and I say, 'This is an important issue.' I'm told, 'We're not going to get involved in the congressional races.' … They told me people can get the information they need on the Internet."

Making the problem worse for congressional candidates is the race between Republican incumbent Michele Bachmann and Democratic challenger Tarryl Clark in the 6th District.

Bachmann-Clark showdown overshadows other races
That high-profile race, which is drawing national attention, is taking money out of all congressional districts in the state. Republicans and Democrats alike who are fundraising in Minnesota are familiar with this line: "My contribution this year is going to the Bachmann/Clark race."

"It's a surreal situation," said Meffert. "Everybody in the country has an opinion about Bachmann so that race draws money from everywhere. That race draws all of the attention. That's the only race you hear about."

Collett shares Meffert's frustration.

"Because of all the attention on that [the 6th District race] and because she [McCollum] won't debate, you've got to have paid media

," Collett said. "But that race is taking up so much of that. You know, you always hear that money is the lifeblood of politics. That's so true. I figure I need about 183,000 votes, but there's no way I can talk to that many people face to face. I need money. As a free-market gal, that doesn't trouble me."

But, as a challenger with low name recognition, she admits that it makes her job difficult. These laments are as old as politics. Races are different from high-school civics classes. Races are about winning, not talking about the issues of the day.

Long-established incumbents such as Kline, McCollum and 8th District Congressman Jim Oberstar, who is taking some heat for ducking debates with Republican challenger Chip Cravaack, have little to gain by debating their relatively unknown foes. By merely appearing on the same stage as Madore or Collett or Cravaack, the incumbents would be raising the profiles of their opponents.

It's easy to duck.

The Kline campaign, for example, has a stock answer for dealing with the "why won't you debate?" question.

The Kline campaign sends out an e-mail response to the question that reads, in part: "Congressman Kline is continuing to address the wide variety of issues important to the men and women in the 2nd Congressional district. He looks forward to continuing his ongoing dialogue with his constituents in the coming weeks and engaging in an open exchange of ideas with his opponent at the Minnesota Public Radio debate set for next month."

Notice, the stock answer doesn't even mention Madore's name.

Except for monster races — such as Bachmann versus Clark and, to a lesser extent, Republican Randy Demmer versus Democratic incumbent Tim Walz in the 1st District — running for Congress is a lonely business. The candidates will be noted on sample ballots sent out by the respective parties, and they will receive nods in party phone bank calls.

Limited outside help
But, unlike Senate races, there's likely to be little help from the national parties, again with the exception of those relatively few races that have been targeted, and state parties have little cash to be tossing into the mix. (State party money tends to be directed at legislative races.)

Despite the steepness of the hills they're attempting to climb, Collett, Madore and Meffert are far from tossing in the towel.

Collett is attempting to raise her profile and bring down McCollum by campaigning against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"Our polling shows there's a 36 percent approval rating for Pelosi in this district," said Collett, "and she [McCollum] voted with Pelosi 100 percent of the time. … I've said this before. She's done a better job representing the people in the San Francisco Bay area than she's done representing the people in White Bear."

Meffert is blasting away at Paulsen's "attack ads" that have been showing up on metro television stations as well as his conservative voting record.

"The people in this district should have the chance to look their candidates in the eye, ask questions, kick the tires a little and get a sense of who we are," said Meffert. "Instead, he [Paulsen] is hiding behind his bank account and 30-second TV messages. He doesn't do well in front of people; it gets him off message. So he relies on the TV messages. But all that does is make everybody cynical."

Madore, who may have the highest hill of all to climb, is trying to point out to voters that they don't really know Kline.

"I don't think people even know he's on the education committee," Madore said. "If the Republicans should win control [of the House], he could end up in charge of that committee. That's a scary thing to imagine, but nobody's talking about it."

 She's talking about it. The question is can anybody hear her, or the other challengers.

"This [lack of debates and coverage] leaves the voters uninformed about real differences and there are very real differences,'' said Collett. "And what else I think is unfortunate is that the lack of debates leaves both sides mischaracterizing the other. You have a situation where GOP folks in this district hearing what I say McCollum thinks and you have the DFLers hearing McCollum say what I think. It's a disappointment because it doesn't have to be that way."

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (12)

This ties in with Eric Black's item about how pols don't correct lies (or miss-statements).

I think the media needs to really step up the reporting on these entrenched pols not being willing to answer to voters.

Because that is what is really happening. Sure, they're blowing off the candidate, but in effect, they're blowing off the voter, who deserves to see the candidates in action, in public, in as unscripted a format as possible.

When Sarah Palin tweets to Christine O'Donnell to only do Fox, it's all part of a propaganda agenda that cuts the voter out.

Let's tell it like it is: candidates who refuse debates refuse to participate in actual democracy.

Too bad about Jim & Betty skipping debates. Admittedly, there's little for them to gain from them, but they have no reason to shy away from additional dialogue either. Both of them will crush their opponents and have nothing to hide. But by avoiding the debate, they make it easier for Kline & Paulsen to do the same.

Kline is hardly a surprise; he's the guy who skipped a scheduled debate to go to a fundraiser and sent a staffer in his place in 2006. Paulsen is apparently following his model.

Sounds like MPR has quite the responsibility. Since the only debate in town is the MPR debate it is a disservice to the voters to keep it to just 25 minutes. MPR contributors should call and demand at least an hour for each race.

Newspapers are proving more and more worthless. Their power must be effectively non-existent if the Strib or the Press can't get the candidates to debate each other. If debates make the job easier for reporters you would think the media would insist upon debates and use the bully pulpit (editorials) to batter opponents who won't debate. It doesn't surprise me to see a local newspaper abdicate responsibility; local papers rarely antagonize their advertisers.

The last I heard, Betty McCollum had refused only one debate: the first debate because one of its sponsors had donated money to Ms. Collett's campaign. She would, however, be there for the remaining three.

I've asked the McCollum campaign staff to verify or refute Collett's claim by adding a comment to this article.

Hey Doug Grow, I've seen some of your stories, not bad, interesting reading. But...could we have just a little honesty here? Betty McCollum already debated Teresa, and me. All you need to do is click on my website, or better yet,
http://www.stevecarlsonforcongress2010.com/White_Bear_Lake_Chamber_Debate

You guys didn't cover it, as far as I'm concerned neither did the St. Paul Pioneer Press's Dennis Lien. So, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, did it really fall? Trick question.

Why don't you cover the debate? It's there. As far as I'm concerned it's the best Congressional debate in the country, and Betty McCollum could not defend her actions. Will you ignore this? I know you got a little angle, and Teresa Collett's got a little angle, but there's an important election, so cover it, okay?

Why is the Strib gone and you're over there? Was it because of the internet? No, because the Strib couldn't cover the important stories and people needed information, and so they go where they can't be stopped from getting the information.

Big media carefully control the spigot of information and don't let a drop go unless they first get their cut. Please don't act like big media.

Anyway, invite all these people onto the #stribpol at Twitter and let's have a big debate.

"at Twitter and let's have a big debate"

Great, a debate where all questions and responses are 140 characters or less.

Betty's arguments for not doing debates (Capital Women's Primary Forum, and the KSTP forum) is specious. Does anyone seriously think that given the bias in media giving that this is a rational explanation! (88% goes to democrats http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washington/2008/07/media-politics.html). Its virtually impossible to find a major media organization that hasn't donated democrat! Her chosen venue of MPR is also listed in contributions (employees) directly to Betty.

You can see a very informative forum, but not on major networks, between Teresa Collett and Betty McCollum. The forum was held by the White Bear Area Chamber, and is on http://www.CollettforCongress.com, click on the Youtube icon. If you are on Carlson's site, right click on the video, then on "watch on youtube" you will be also taken to CollettforCongress channel where the video is located. Vote for the candidate that will really do the work for you! Watch the forum video and see why the best candidate is Teresa Collett

http://www.stevecarlsonforcongress2010.com/Betty_McCollum_on_the_Defensive

You can see how Betty McCollum did debate both myself and Teresa Collett and didn't do very well. If the press looks at this debate (and Dennis Lien, with all due respect, and his editor, really did not capture what went on there, didn't ask any questions at all about McCollum's clearly discredited attempts to defend the last two years in Washington)--if the press examines just this, you will find there is a real story here, and the record supports throwing McCollum out. There is a three-way race here.

@ Bernice Vetsch--"panels" and "forums" are not debates. Until Betty McCollum agrees to real, back and forth exchange (preferably on camera!), it's not a debate. Panels and forums are too scripted and tightly controlled through format to honestly call them debates.

I've seen several examples through internet video of how Rep. McCollum does in situations where the exchange is allowed to go off-script. She's terrible. If the campaign's REAL problem isn't that they're terrified to turn Betty loose in a debate, there's a simple way to prove it, because Collett stands ready to debate her.

No, we had the KSTP-TV debate and it was the same thing, just answering Tom Hauser's questions, except that Collett and myself got to ask each other four questions each, then Hauser asked us each a couple different questions. The only difference is that it was in studio, on KSTP, rather than on cable TV (you can see the White Bear Area Chamber of Commerce debate with McCollum at http://www.stevecarlsonforcongress2010.com) and that there was no live audience, so it was easier to look at the camera, although we did not except for closing statements.

I think it's fine McCollum didn't show up. She couldn't kill the debate because Collett showed up, which surprised me a bit. And Collett and I each had about 20 minutes more time. And McCollum couldn't respond, so that's her choice.

There's really no excuse at all for MinnPost not to cover the cable TV-televised debate.

I found it difficult to find information on some of the Congressional campaigns in major Minnesota newspapers like the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press. Just google the candidate's names and see what comes up. If you're looking for more than fund raising reports, you could be very disappointed. And it's now 15 days to Election Day!