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Why campaigns spend so much time debating debates

There are plenty of reasons for campaigns to debate having debates, including using the issue to get the attention of voters who might not otherwise pay attention. 

On Friday, Democrat Angie Craig and Republican Jason Lewis participated in a debate on TPT's “Almanac,” a discussion that also included Independence Party candidate Paula Overby.
Screen shot courtesy of Michael Brodkorb

Debates between political candidates campaigning for an office provide one of the best opportunities for voters to contrast the positions of candidates.

But there are different ways campaigns approach the planning of debates, which brings us to another election year tradition: debates between campaigns — about debates. Staffers will bicker over just about every facet of a debate: the length and format, the number of questions asked, and even the seating arrangement. All are fair game, and both Republicans and Democrats do it. 

And in every election cycle, there’s almost always several races in which the private bickering over those details becomes a public dispute, with one campaign accusing the other campaign of “refusing to debate” or “hiding from the public.” I should know: In 1998, as a young staffer for the Republican Party of Minnesota, I donned a chicken suit to make fun of  DFLer Skip Humphrey for “skipping” debates in the governor’s race. 

This year, the most conspicuous example of the phenomenon is between two candidates running for Congress in Minnesota’s Second Congressional District: Democrat Angie Craig and Republican Jason Lewis.

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On Friday, both candidates participated in a debate on TPT’s “Almanac,” a discussion that also included Independence Party candidate Paula Overby.

It was the first debate between Craig and Lewis, though the debate over debates had been going for several days by then. Earlier in the week, Lewis’ campaign issued a press release claiming Craig “continues to avoid debates,” including the allegation Craig “canceled her appearance at the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce debate…”

While it is true the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce canceled a planned debate between the candidates, Craig’s campaign never said they confirmed Craig would attend the debate. Chamber President Vicki Stute wrote Craig decided “not to participate”; Stute never claimed Craig had agreed to participate in the debate. 

There is a difference between a candidate canceling an appearance at a debate and a campaign deciding not to schedule their candidate to participate. But a day later, Lewis’ campaign issued another press release claiming Craig was declining to “participate in another debate.” This one because Craig refused a debate invitation from the Shakopee Chamber of Commerce.

Again, the charge against Craig is not that she was canceling a scheduled debate appearance, but that she was not accepting the invitation to participate in the first place. Making this all the more messy: While Lewis’ campaign was attacking Craig for declining debate invitations, Lewis’ campaign declined the invitation to participate in a debate hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council, an invitation which Craig had accepted.

What’s notable about the bickering is that voters in the Second Congressional District will actually have more opportunities than in previous years to hear from candidates for the office. In both 2012 and 2014, Republican Rep. John Kline — whom Craig and Lewis are seeking to replace — and his DFL-opponent Mike Obermueller appeared in only one debate. Craig and Lewis, meanwhile, will spar in three high visibility events this year, and all of their scheduled debates will be broadcast on both radio and television.

Of course, there are other reasons for the debate over debates, including using the issue to get the attention of voters who might not otherwise pay attention to a race.

Supreme Court non-debate

One example of that could be found in the below-the-radar race between incumbent Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Natalie Hudson and attorney Michelle MacDonald. Hudson came in first place in the primary election with over 60 percent of the vote, with MacDonald coming in second place, earning just 20 percent of the vote.

Given Hudson’s strong performance in the primary, I was a bit surprised to get an email from MacDonald’s campaign claiming she would be participating “head to head in a televised debate” with Hudson.

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But then, less than an hour after MacDonald announced she would be debating Hudson, a representative of the group organizing the debate, the Minnesota Voters Alliance, said Hudson had not yet been invited to participate in the debate. In other words, MacDonald was advertising a debate with her opponent, before her opponent was even invited to appear in the debate. 

It was a classic political setup: by advertising a debate which had not been confirmed, both MacDonald and the group which setup the debate could claim Hudson was “refusing to debate.”

The debate that was never actually a debate was later canceled in an early morning tweet from Minnesota Voters Alliance’s Andy Celik, who wrote it was “canceled due to scheduling conflicts. It will not be re-scheduled.”

Politicos in Minnesota quickly suspected that the whole thing was nothing more than a bit of political theater. Representatives of the Minnesota Voters Alliance did not respond to requests for additional details on the debate between Hudson and MacDonald. But the organization just announced they will host a fundraising event later this month. Among the announced “special guests”: Michelle MacDonald.