2022 midterms

Thanks to Trump, Republican Candidates Can Now Dodge Debates

Herschel Walker has everything he needs to win a Republican Senate nomination. He doesn’t need debates. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Georgia’s Herschel Walker is gliding toward the Republican Senate nomination that he is almost sure to win in the May 24 primary. He has near-universal name recognition in the state, high favorability ratings, plenty of access to donations, and the support of both Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. His primary opponents are like Lilliputians next to his towering figure. So why should he debate them? It’s an all-downside proposition for prohibitive front-runners like Walker.

Back in the day, Walker would have faced intense criticism for debate-dodging, particularly given his lack of experience in public office or even politics. Not so much anymore, as Politico explains:

The media — a traditional arbiter of many debates — is so reviled by Republican primary voters that campaigns now recognize there may be more to gain from criticizing the process than participating. There’s also been a surge in self-funding and celebrity candidates in 2022, whose inexperience at debating and fears of campaign-ending missteps may be leading them to dodge debates altogether. Then there’s the shadow of Donald Trump, whose complaints that debates are rigged is now the party line, with the Republican National Committee throwing the prospect of presidential debates in two years into question.

Trump, of course, skipped one Republican candidate debate in 2016 and forced the cancellation of another. And in October 2020, he also forced the cancellation of a general-election debate with Joe Biden because it would be virtual (thanks to Trump’s own positive COVID test). In every case, he attacked debate sponsors (whether it was media organizations or the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates) for alleged bias. It’s not surprising that earlier this year, the Republican National Committee indicated that GOP presidential nominees going forward should refuse to cooperate with the commission.

Even before Trump entered politics, it became convenient — even ritualistic — for Republicans to attack media-company debate sponsors. In 2012, for example, Newt Gingrich was regarded as the presidential field’s star debater for his constant attacks on the “liberal media.” So there’s little risk in telling media sponsors — or other allegedly nonpartisan organizations like the commission — “no” or setting conditions sure to be refused.

Walker is far from the only debate-averse 2022 GOP candidate, says Politico: “So far this year, in more than a half-dozen Senate, House and governor’s races across the electoral map, Republican candidates have skipped primary debates, seemingly with few repercussions.” And some GOP political operatives are coming right out and saying debates should be eliminated altogether:

“The media will fight like cats and dogs, because it’s the last thing in a campaign environment they have any control over,” said Dave Carney, the Republican strategist who advises Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, whose campaign is suggesting he may not debate his Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke, in the fall. “But in 10 years, when debates don’t happen anymore, no one will notice, voters won’t notice or care.”

Debates, Carney said, are “crazy … It’s like having your candidates do pet tricks for the media, and I’m against them.”

Denigrating the value of debates is becoming something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As candidates skip or criticize them, ratings go down and poor viewership becomes another excuse for refusing to do them.

“Campaigns have come to the realization that no one watches debates, so the risk outweighs the reward,” said John Thomas, a Republican strategist who works on House campaigns across the country …

Now, Thomas said, “Voters are totally cool with you going on Facebook Live for 20 minutes and having a conversation with them about your policies and your agenda.”

Why debate when you can control the medium and audience and not have to put up with pesky moderators or, worse yet, opponents? It makes more sense to stockpile money to hold “conversations” or run ads, or maybe roll down to Mar-a-Lago for the conversation that matters most to many Republicans.

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Thanks to Trump, Republican Candidates Can Now Dodge Debates