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Have We Seen the End of Debates?

The 2010 Campaigns Set Dangerous Precedent
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Don’t Texas politicians debate anymore?

By my count, here are the candidates running for office in November who have rejected opportunities to debate their opponents: Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, Greg Abbott (though he said he might debate, you know, maybe), Ken Mercer and Marsha Farney.

In order, that’s the state’s governor, lt. governor, attorney general and two candidates for the Texas State Board of Education. (If you know of others, send me an email or add a comment below.)

They all happen to be Republicans, but the more important commonality is that they’re all favored to win on Election Day. Dewhurst has a 20-point lead in the polls over Democratic opponent Linda Chavez-Thompson. Barbara Ann Radnofsky is running a tough, spirited campaign against Abbott, but few observers think she has a chance to win. Mercer represents an overwhelmingly Republican district on the State Board of Education. Farney’s seat is more up-for-grabs, but it’s still a GOP-leaning seat.

Only Perry has a competitive race on his hands (if you average out the polls, Perry is ahead of Bill White by 5-6 points.)

And none of them have agreed to share a stage with their opponents.

Of course, you probably know about Perry’s machinations around debating White. Dewhurst is keeping a low profile (and that’s putting it mildly; has anyone even seen him lately?). Meanwhile, Mercer and Farney took the advice of the state Republican Party and spurned debate invitations from the League of Women Voters.

The political play is clear enough: These candidates see little benefit in debating. There’s a chance you might say something unbelievably stupid—a gaffe that might endanger your election. Better to “play it safe” and just coast unnoticed to the election.

This political strategy has gone too far.

Back in the naive old days of 2006, a candidate following this strategy would agree to as few debates as possible, which usually meant one. For example, Perry debated his three opponents, which included Kinky Friedman, in the 2006 governor’s race (and what a circus that night was.)  Kay Bailey Hutchison debated Radnofsky in their one-sided race for the U.S. Senate that same year. Candidate debates have historically been common in races for state House, state Senate and State Board of Education.

There’s one simple reason for that: The public deserves to hear candidates debate the issues in an unscripted environment. If you want to represent people, you have to win them over. Moreover, if you can’t survive a single debate without eating your foot, you probably shouldn’t be holding elected office.

It used to be that candidates who refused to debate would be pummeled so badly in the press that they would suffer at the polls. But I fear those days might be over.

It seems quite possible that all five of these candidates will refuse to debate and still win. That’s a dangerous precedent.

In future elections, what will be the incentive for Republican candidates with a lead in the polls to debate?

Until Democrats become more competitive in Texas, we may have seen the end of candidate debates in statewide races.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.