Candidates, mostly Republican, skip debates, bar press during midterm campaigns

By: and - September 6, 2022 12:12 pm

Most Republican candidates for statewide and federal office skipped The Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at this year’s Iowa State Fair. | Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch

WASHINGTON — With two months left of the 2022 campaign season, a majority of Republican candidates are continuing to skirt away from not only talking to local and national media outlets about their policy issues, but their own constituents, leaving voters with little information on their policy positions.

“If we are to hold our elected officials accountable on their policy stance(s), we have to know what they are,” said Nicholas Valentino, a political science and research professor in the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan.

The relationship between the press and politicians has always had some amount of contention, throughout Republican and Democratic-controlled congressional terms and White House administrations.

The Obama administration more than any White House administration used the Espionage Act to go after whistleblowers who leaked to the press. For example, the government has used that act 11 times to go after federal workers who shared classified information with the press, and the Obama administration alone used the act seven of those times.

But the refusal to talk to journalists and barring them from covering political events that would inform voters of their policy positions, has gotten worse over the years, and it’s showing up in local elections.

“If you can undermine the credibility of the press, then you can also absolve yourself the responsibility to speak to the press, and we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the United States in that kind of behavior,” Valentino said.

He said it’s a trend that worries experts who study democratic stability not only in the United States, but across the world.

“One of the key indicators of democratic backsliding is our restriction of information to the free press and an unwillingness to speak to the press,” Valentino said.

Debates are off the table, too

It’s not just the media that Republican candidates are opting out of speaking to, it’s their own constituents. In Iowa, Republicans such as Gov. Kim Reynolds, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley and U.S. Reps. Randy Feenstra, Ashley Hinson and Mariannette Miller-Meeks skipped an Iowa State Fair tradition – the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox where candidates talk to the public about where they stand on the issues. The only Republicans who spoke were those challenging Democratic incumbents.

A majority of Republican candidates are also refusing to debate their Democratic opponents. Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine refused to debate Republican challengers in the primary and now has said he will not debate his Democratic challenger, former Dayton mayor Nan Whaley.

In Nebraska, GOP governor candidate Jim Pillen also refuses to debate his Democratic challenger, State Sen. Carol Blood. If elected, Pillen would become Nebraska’s first governor since at least the 1970s to be elected without facing his opponents on a debate stage. (Nebraska U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, on the other hand, will participate in two debates and recently tweeted “I love debates.”)

And in a closely watched Georgia U.S. Senate race, Republican candidate Herschel Walker has yet to hold a public debate with Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who became Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator after a special election in January of last year. Walker has challenged Warnock to several debates, which Warnock agreed to, but Walker has backed out of those debates.

Walker has agreed to an Oct. 14 debate hosted by Nexstar Media Group. Warnock has not agreed to the debate, and refused to answer the question when asked by a reporter from the Ledger-Enquirer. 

Warnock’s campaign responded to States Newsroom, but did not answer if he would attend the Oct. 14 debate.

“How can we expect Herschel Walker to stand up for Georgians in the Senate if he refuses to debate on stage?” Warnock wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

Walker has also frequently put restrictions on local press, opting to release statements to conservative outlets like Fox News instead.

Not all Republican candidates are declining debate invitations. For instance, Republican Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is running for governor, has agreed to debate Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. Schmidt, however, waited three months after announcing his running mate before holding his first press conference.

And a few Democratic candidates have been criticized for turning down invitations.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman has largely stayed away from interviews and accepting debate invitations for weeks following a stroke in May. His campaign has largely run on memes, attacking his GOP U.S. Senate nominee Mehmet Oz for being a New Jersey resident.

Oz has agreed to attend what would be the first televised debate for the race, hosted by Pittsburgh’s KDKA-TV, on Sept. 6.

And in Maryland, Democratic candidate Wes Moore and Republican candidate Dan Cox were invited to a Sept. 27 gubernatorial forum by Morgan State University’s student-run news publication. Cox accepted, but Moore declined, with his spokesman saying Moore did not want to “elevate the dangerous views” of his challenger.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (left) and GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon (right) | Andrew Roth

Debate over debates in Michigan

In Michigan, no debates are on the books for the gubernatorial, attorney general or secretary of state races ahead of November’s general election.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has accepted invitations for two TV debates against GOP challenger Tudor Dixon — for Oct. 13 in Grand Rapids and Oct. 25 in Detroit. Dixon has said she looks forward to debating Whitmer but has so far declined to participate on those specific dates, saying she wants more debates and for all to be held on earlier dates.

Dana Nessel, Michigan’s Democratic attorney general, has said she is essentially prohibited from debating Republican challenger Matthew DePerno because doing so would raise legal issues and cause her to violate her oath of office.

DePerno is one of several individuals named in a petition by Nessel’s office seeking the appointment of a special prosecutor. It is part of an ongoing investigation into allegations that third parties illegally obtained and tampered with voting tabulators after the 2020 election.

Due to the investigation her office is seeking into DePerno and others, Nessel cited American Bar Association rules for prosecutors and said she cannot be drawn into a debate with him.

As for the secretary of state race, Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson agreed to make a joint appearance with GOP challenger Kristina Karamo on WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” Karamo pushed back, demanding that a Republican-leaning co-moderator be added along with veteran host Tim Skubick. She claims PBS is known for “favoring Democrats,” although she provided no evidence. According to Karamo, that request has been denied.

“To make the debate happen, I will need to pick one of the moderators, and Jocelyn Benson may select the other,” Karamo said in a statement, adding that the debate must be held before absentee ballots are sent out to Michiganders.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (left) and GOP SOS nominee Kristina Karamo (right) | Andrew Roth

The rise of partisan voting

When political candidates refuse to step on the debate stage to either defend or explain their policy position, it makes it difficult for voters to be informed on what their representatives are doing, Valentino said.

“One of the major discoveries in political psychology over the last 50 or 60 years, which is that in fact, it is highly rare and difficult for constituencies to hold their elected officials accountable,” he said.

And when voters don’t have a clear idea of policy values a candidate holds, then their votes become more partisan, said Daniel Hopkins, a political science professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Voters, when they go to the polls, have a lot of information about national politics, and very little information about state and local politics,” he said. “There have been a whole set of very compelling studies in recent years, showing that when local newspapers go out of business, voters then tend to vote in more partisan ways.”

Voting based on party affiliation alone, is also a shift away from American democratic norms, Hopkins added.

“The reason that we ask voters to vote on all of these specific candidates, rather than just voting for a party, is because of the idea that the candidate matters, that candidates can take different positions, that these individuals are not just functionaries of their parties,” he said. “And so if voters are increasingly just joining the party line, that does pose a real tension with the way that we conduct our elections, which asks people to develop opinions about so many different political actors.”

And refusing to allow press into political rallies, also makes it difficult to inform voters, Hopkins added.

“They have less information, and so they’re going to stick with their partisanship,” Hopkins said.

Attacks on the press as strategy 

Over the last several years, Hopkins said polarization has increased and certain Republican candidates have been “abandoning the idea that the news media can be a neutral outlet.”

He pointed to former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose frequent attacks on the media helped him build a right-wing following ahead of the 2012 presidential primaries. He lost the Republican presidential primary, but the norm of attacking the press as a biased institution, was quickly followed as a tactic for former Republican President Donald Trump.

The Trump administration also frequently attacked media outlets and barred them from press briefings and threatened to take away their White House press credentials. And in 2017, Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs was physically assaulted by U.S. House Montana-at large Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, while asking him a question about health care.

Gianforte won the special election and is currently the governor of Montana.

The Republican National Committee this year voted unanimously to withdraw from the Commission on Presidential Debates ahead of the 2024 presidential election, arguing that it would not be a fair debate. The commission is a nonpartisan organization that has sponsored president and vice president debates since the ’80s and has Republican and Democratic membership.

“The Commission on Presidential Debates is biased and has refused to enact simple and common sense reforms to help ensure fair debates including hosting debates before voting begins and selecting moderators who have never worked for candidates on the debate stage,” RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.

MIGOP restricting access to Capitol lawn for rally raises 1st Amendment issues, experts say

In Michigan, the Republican Party last month barred outlets from covering its state convention. The party also tried to require credentials for media to cover a rally afterward on the state Capitol lawn, a taxpayer-funded public space, as well as tickets for general admission, moves that media attorneys told the Michigan Advance raised First Amendment concerns.

And in Florida, GOP elected officials only allowed conservative media outlets to attend Sunshine Summit, an event where Republicans in the state discuss their political agendas. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary, taunted non-conservative media outlets on Twitter who were barred from the event.

“It has come to my attention that some liberal media activists are mad because they aren’t allowed into #SunshineSummit this weekend,” she wrote. “My message to them is to try crying about it. Then go to kickboxing and have a margarita. And write the same hit piece you were gonna write anyway.”

Republican Alaskan candidate Sarah Palin also avoided talking to the press during the special election to finish the term of the state’s only member of Congress, Rep. Don Young, who died in March.

However, Palin did answer a survey response by the Alaskan Beacon about her various policy stances such as abortion (she doesn’t believe in codifying Roe. v. Wade), the validity of the 2020 presidential election (she believes the falsehood that former President Donald Trump won the election) and marijuana legalization (she believes it should be legal), among other issues.

She lost against Democratic candidate Mary Peltola after rank choice votes were announced Wednesday night. Peltola will become the first woman to represent Alaska in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the first Alaska Native ever to serve in Congress.

But shutting the press out isn’t the only concern that a democratic country is backsliding, Valentino said. The passage of strict voting laws – a trend among Republican state-controlled legislatures since the 2020 presidential election – and the denying of valid elections are some of the more egregious trends of eroding democracy.

Many 2020 election deniers have been nominated as GOP candidates for governor in four critical swing states – Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Valentino said if election deniers started overturning elections, “that would ironically be one of the first major indications of election fraud occurring on behalf of the party that’s been accusing the other side of election fraud for years now.”

“That in some ways, most scholars would say, is far more serious than attacks on the press, because it would mean that you were actually taking votes that had been cast, and throwing them out,” he said.

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.

Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.