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Why there have been so few debates in the Minnesota governor’s race so far

Accusations of debate-ducking have been flying on both the Republican and DFL sides of the race.

Attorney General Lori Swanson, Rep. Tim Walz, County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, and state Rep. Erin Murphy participated in a gubernatorial forum on June 28 at the Economic Development Association of Minnesota summer conference in Nisswa.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Call it the debate debates.

As a general rule, political candidates who are ahead (or think they’re ahead) don’t want to debate. While engaging with a rival has the potential of boosting a front-runner’s standing, it can also provide an opportunity for a trailing candidate to be heard and seen and take the leader down a bit. Being aggressive is the best way for the underdog to accomplish all three — so a leading candidate usually avoids such settings.

Candidates who are behind want to debate for all the reasons above. And they use a public expectation that debates are a traditional feature of campaigns to try to entice or cajole the opponent into a face-to-face confrontation. It is not uncommon for trailing campaigns to hire a guy in a chicken suit to troll the front-runner’s public appearances.

Avoiding joint appearances, therefore, isn’t good politics. Making them few and obscure at least provides deniability.

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So it is with both halves of the 2018 primary for governor of Minnesota. The few voter-preference polls that have been available indicate that former Gov. Tim Pawlenty is ahead of Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson for the GOP nomination. On the DFL side, Attorney General Lori Swanson is ahead of U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, with state Rep. Erin Murphy third.

The times when all candidates — or even those on one party ballot or the other — have been on the same stage since party endorsement conventions have been limited. For DFLers, it was a forum at a lodge near Nisswa in front of local government economic development officials and a joint appearance on Almanac. According to sponsors, all three are confirmed for a forum Thursday before the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities in Mankato.

For the GOP, the only joint appearances have been before groups that did not open the forums to the public or the news media: one with the conservative Freedom Club and one with the Minnesota Business Partnership. (Johnson showed up for that Almanac appearance with the DFL candidates, but Pawlenty did not.) While Johnson is confirmed for the Thursday forum in Mankato, Pawlenty is listed only as “invited” and his campaign said he has a schedule conflict that will prevent him from attended the evening event.

It is part of the script, then, that Johnson and Murphy called for more joint appearances and suggested their opponents are less than transparent with voters.

“With less than five weeks before the DFL primary, it is unfortunate that my DFL opponents are not interested in engaging in conversations about the urgent issues facing Minnesotans and how we solve them,” said Murphy in a campaign statement. She singled out Swanson, noting that she did not become a candidate for governor until after the DFL convention.

“In the five weeks since, she has declined to participate or backed out of a number of public events, especially those where she would be expected to face questions from Minnesotans or reporters about her priorities,” the Murphy statement said. She called on her opponents to “step it up” and to stop “playing it safe.”

Then on Monday, Murphy challenged both Swanson and Walz to a debate on gun safety. In a Facebook post and in a letter from her campaign manager to the managers of the rival campaigns, Murphy said Swanson has misrepresented both her own and Murphy’s position on guns.

“I ask that the debate be live-streamed so Minnesotans across our state can hear our opinions, take a hard look at our records, ask questions, and decide which one of us is best suited to represent their values,” Murphy wrote on Facebook.

Fatuous debate about debates?

It is Johnson, however, who has drawn a response.

During a press conference earlier this month, Johnson was asked about Pawlenty TV ads that targeted him — attacks that aren’t common from candidates who think they are way ahead. Johnson disputed the accuracy of the ads, but was pleased that he had finally gotten some attention from Pawlenty. The former two-term governor, after all, hadn’t even contested the GOP endorsement that went to Johnson for the second election in a row.

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“It was a good day on the campaign,” Johnson said, adding the previous strategy by Pawlenty had been to “ignore Jeff.”

He then stated the obvious position of someone chasing a candidate: “I will agree any forum he’ll agree to … I would do one every day with him. Unfortunately, he’s nowhere to be found.”

Johnson was asked if the race has in fact tightened, as he claims is shown by the TV ads attacking his record on the Hennepin County commission, why would Pawlenty not want more debates?

“If he thinks that would benefit him,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if he thinks that would benefit him.”

It continued last week. In a campaign press release, Johnson called on Pawlenty to accept a televised debate sometime before the primary. Pawlenty’s campaign chair James Seifert responded by saying the campaign had already accepted two broadcast appearances: August 5 in KSTP’s studios and an appearance at Farm Fest that will be broadcast on WCCO-AM radio.

Seifert objected to the implication that “Pawlenty was ducking debates.”

“Sorry, Jeff,” the statement continued. “You can’t launch a fatuous ‘debate about debates’ when you don’t even have your facts straight.”

Johnson, in turn, said those two forums hardly counted. The KSTP appearance was a “joint interview” that would last just 10 minutes while Farm Fest was with candidates from both parties and focused on agriculture.

“We haven’t had, nor has Tim agreed to, a one-on-one public broadcast debate,” Johnson wrote. “We look forward to hearing what we’re missing.”

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Pawlenty then responded to the response. That KSTP interview would last a half hour, the campaign noted. And, by the way, the campaign had also agreed to a joint appearance on MPR on August 3.

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to share my vision for Minnesota with voters in these three debates, which will reach statewide audiences via the broadcast partners,” the Pawlenty campaign statement read.