Political candidates skipping live, televised debate is a new trend in Idaho, but it may do little to affect the outcome of the election, writes guest columnist Chuck Malloy. (Getty Images)
Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson appeared to be getting himself into hot water with his recent refusal to debate his opponent, Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith, on Idaho Public Television.
As it turned out, Simpson was setting a trend. Days later, Rep. Pricilla Giddings of White Bird – who is running for lieutenant governor – backed out of her televised debate with Scott Bedke. Then, Gov. Brad Little – who is being challenged by Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin and Ed Humphreys of Eagle, among others – became the first sitting governor to duck a debate.
All had their reasons. Basically, Simpson, Giddings and Little wanted nothing to do with the political food fights that were certain to occur.
Simpson’s campaign issued a statement that “voters heard enough from Bryan Smith.” It’s more accurate that Simpson has heard all he wants from Smith. Voters will hear plenty more from Smith about the need to replace Simpson after 22 years. But it won’t happen on a debate stage.
Giddings backed away, saying she was concerned that reporters serving on the debate panel would be biased. She has a point. These biased reporters, no doubt, would grill her on things like releasing the name of a woman who said another legislator raped her and her blind loyalty to the Idaho Freedom Foundation. With this thing called the free press, politics can be a brutal career choice for people who don’t like hard questions.
Little’s departure, while somewhat surprising, makes sense politically. His campaign says the governor’s record is “non-debatable,” which is not the smoothest choice of words. Of course, his record is debatable – as is the record of any governor in any state. But he has no interest in engaging with McGeachin, who has spent the last two years hammering on the governor for one reason or the other. As Little might see it, there’s no reason to give McGeachin free air time.
The question is whether ducking debates will have any impact on the races. My guess is, probably not.
Debates do hold value in political campaigns for undecided voters. In these races, those who have not made up their minds must be living in caves. They obviously don’t follow politics, and it’s likely they won’t vote anyway.
For campaign staffs and volunteers, televised debates are better than the Super Bowl, with every word (and gaffe) being the difference between life and death. The reality is, viewers who are not political junkies are more likely to be at home watching a sporting event or favorite program than the debate.
To supporters of various campaigns, televised debates are nice excuses to hold watch parties. Of course, their candidate will be the “clear winner” no matter how well or poorly he/she does.
Debates provide a snapshot of a candidate’s relative strengths and weaknesses, to the extent that two-minute responses and one-minute rebuttals provide. But televised debates in Idaho, which have been going on for more than three decades, rarely (if ever) make a difference in the outcome of an election.
If there’s a candidate who might be hurt with his decision not to debate it’s Simpson, who may be facing the toughest challenge of his political career. Smith is eager to call out Simpson for supporting dam breaching as well as the congressman declaring Donald Trump “unfit” for the presidency a few weeks before he was elected to the office in 2016.
“It’s his choice if he wants to debate or not, I’ll give him that. What’s not his choice, and is the hallmark of arrogance, is for a congressman to say that voters have heard enough from his opponent,” Smith says.
“When I found out he wasn’t going to debate, I was really disappointed for the people of Idaho,” Smith said. “Debates have been a tradition, and part of our culture, for more than 30 years. I’m disappointed that the voters are not going to watch what was going to be one of the most anticipated political debates in this election cycle.”
Of course, not all is lost for Smith, who can spend the remaining weeks of the campaign talking about how Simpson is “hiding” from his record. Smith is gaining some generous attention – and rallying points for his supporters – with Simpson’s decision to skip the debate.
Smith might not have gotten that kind of traction after a debate.
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