Senate GOP, Democratic candidates use debate issue to pressure opponents

In Georgia, the Democratic incumbent kicked off general election season by demanding to appear on stage in three debates against a Republican challenger running his first campaign.

In Pennsylvania, another first-time GOP candidate badgered his much more experienced Democratic opponent to accept five massive statewide debates. Then there’s New Hampshire, where the incumbent Democrat has already demanded three debates before the state’s GOP voters even had a chance to select their nominee in the race.

The old rules of debates in major Senate races do not apply to this modern era of politics.

Top campaign advisers set aside the principle that an incumbent would rarely agree to more than one or two debates against a challenger. And it used to be that only those who trailed in public and private polls wanted debates, hoping to deliver a memorable joke or other game-changing moment.

Throughout the major Senate races this fall, which will determine who will take charge of the now 50-50 split chamber, campaigns are using the debate over debates as subtext to their overall argument about their opponent’s fitness to run. hold a position.

It comes as Democrats, even some who are now ahead in their races, are eager to force their GOP challengers onto a stage to face questions from a traditional news anchor. That’s because of the increasingly common strategy of some Republicans to simply avoid most mainstream media interactions in their states.

“The flaws of Republican candidates deserve the attention that a debate brings,” said David Bergstein, the top spokesman for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

But Republicans see their line of attack — demanding time on the debate stage against Democrats, particularly John Fetterman of Pennsylvania — as part of their broader campaign.

“The debate about debates is not really a debate about debates,” said Chris Hartline, the senior spokesman for the Republican National Senate Committee.

Since suffering a massive stroke in May, Fetterman has taken a light-hearted approach to campaigning, spending more than two months almost entirely at his home in western Pennsylvania. His opponent, Mehmet Oz, remained mostly silent as Fetterman tried to recover, but he fell behind as the Democratic campaign unloaded a searing series of ads that far exceeded anything Republicans countered.

Now, Oz is pushing for debates to force Fetterman to both discuss the general state of his health and answer for some of the more liberal stances he’s taken in the past.

“These are debates, including five offered by major media companies. And I think that response reveals one of the reasons,” Oz told Hugh Hewitt on Thursday, after the conservative radio host aired a clip of Fetterman giving an uneven political response to an MSNBC anchor. “He has a hard time talking about politics. Now this is evident before his stroke. It’s not new.

From offering aid to large-scale attacks: Oz goes blitz Fetterman

Fetterman, who admitted he still struggles with some speaking effects of stroke, accused Oz of ‘making fun of a stroke survivor’ and rejected his first debate offer for this month. -this. Instead, he agreed to a single debate, in October, and now the two sides are clashing over which debates and which media outlets should hold.

Hartline thinks that simply discussing the issue of how many debates to have, which is the focus of local media but not GOP publicity, helps Oz blunt Fetterman’s overall image as a big badass. that connects with working-class voters.

“To get there to talk about his ideology on the issues, you have to break his mark. And that’s one way to do it,” Hartline said.

In Georgia, Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) tried to work the debate issue to his advantage. Just days after the May primary, he demanded at least three debates with Republican Herschel Walker, a former college football and NFL star who refused to debate his GOP opponents in the primary.

Walker has generally directed his campaign appearances at friendly local audiences and conservative media, producing moments that revealed a lack of understanding about how the federal government works. Appearing before a conservative audience, Walker claimed someone had to be “185” to be a racist.

If they can get him on the debate stage, Democrats suspect Walker would falter and nearly disqualify himself as a Senate candidate in such a critical contest.

“It plays into the larger narrative,” Hartline said, noting the Democrat focused on accusations that Walker is “not up to the task.” It’s basically the entire Warnock campaign.

Walker accepted a debate, but none of the three suggested by Warnock. Now they have a similar feud to the Pennsylvania candidates.

General election debates are usually dry business where the competing camps have spent weeks grooming each candidate on how to avoid falling into political traps and repeating a few zingers they hope the media picks up on. will focus in their post-mortem stories.

But in very close races, small mistakes can prove decisive, or at least turn a campaign the wrong way for a few days. Early October 2016, then senator. Kelly Ayotte (R) told a New Hampshire debate moderator that ‘absolutely’ Donald Trump could be a role model for young children – a comment she has spent weeks trying to explain, especially after revelations according to which the future president had boasted at least once of having sexually abused women.

Ayotte lost her race by around 1,000 votes.

That same year, then-candidate Catherine Cortez Masto (D) delivered a strong performance in the only debate in a race to replace incumbent Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev .). His GOP opponent, Joseph J. Heck, stumbled upon trying to explain why he withdrew his endorsement of Trump. Cortez Masto won with just 47% of the vote, as nearly 4% of voters declined to vote for either candidate, many of whom could have been Trump supporters unwilling to back Heck.

Cortez Masto is now demanding that her GOP opponent, Adam Laxalt, accept three debates, perhaps believing she can repeat that performance from six years ago.

Bergstein noted that whether or not candidates like Walker debate their opponents, Democrats have devoted resources to exploiting any appearances Republicans have made in conservative media.

Feeling comfortable in front of friendly audiences, these GOP candidates made statements that are now backfired in the general election — an August DSCC digital ad, against Blake Masters, highlighted comments “ weird” made entirely by the Arizona Republican himself, either on social media or in the appearances.

“Voters are now discovering Republican candidates through paid advertising over a longer period of time. It’s heavily focused on Republican candidates in their own words,” Bergstein said.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (DN.H.) announced Friday, ahead of the state’s GOP primary vote on Tuesday, that she would accept three debates. The favorites are an experienced state legislator who would likely relish the opportunity to be on stage with her three times, and a retired Army brigadier general with virtually no political experience.

Some races have taken a more traditional approach, such as in Washington state, where incumbent 30-year-old Sen. Patty Murray (D) rejected her opponent’s suggestions that they debate four times.

And in Arizona, Masters is calling for more than just the debate Sen. Mark Kelly (D) has accepted so far.

In 2018, when Hartline served as a senior adviser in Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign to unseat Sen. Bill Nelson (D), the incumbent accepted three debates but withdrew from the last two, citing the need to focus on helping the state rebuild after a hurricane.

Scott’s camp assumed Nelson, 76 at the time, just wanted to play it safe and avoid any potential tripping, Hartline said.

Scott won by a tenth of a percentage point, out of more than 8 million total votes. Hartline quoted Scott’s favorite saying when asked if the race result would have been different if Nelson had done two more debates.

“When you win by 10,033 votes,” Hartline said, “everything is why you won or lost.”

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