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Getting incumbents to debate can be tough

Seventh District Republican candidate Dave Hughes has a problem. He’d love to have more candidate forums with his opponent, long-term Democratic incumbent Collin Peterson, but that seems increasingly unlikely.

A candidate forum would illustrate why Peterson isn’t as moderate as he claims, Hughes said. “He has reputation that he’s a conservative Democrat, and I don’t think that’s true,” Hughes said. “He’s not nearly the conservative that people give him credit for … he’s a mainstream Democrat.”

Peterson seems to be following in the footsteps of other incumbents who prefer few debates and, when participating, tend to opt for forums sponsored by media outlets. The League of Women Voters has been familiar with the trend since 2012, when incumbents noticeably began to beg off candidate forums, according to Executive Director Susan Sheridan Tucker.

“We had always had a policy where if there was a single candidate we wouldn’t hold the forum because it would appear we were partisan, and we’re not a partisan organization,” Tucker said. “As time goes on we have recognized that this is a strategy of candidates to not show up at these forums.”

It’s less of a problem in state races because the League is not prohibited from having a single candidate appear at a forum as long as others in the race were invited, Tucker said. Federal races, however, are regulated by government agencies that have told Tucker the League cannot have forum with just one candidate.

“Unless it’s a newscast, a candidate just can’t appear somewhere for a 501(c)(3) [nonprofit] organization,” Tucker said. “It comes off as being too partisan. And we couldn’t broadcast that [forum] as well.”

Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said it’s not all that surprising to see incumbents avoid debates. “Refusing to debate a challenger exacerbates the incumbency advantage that already exists,” she said. “Other than the bad press of refusing the debates there’s a reason incumbents turn down debates.  It’s because debates, all things being equal, will advantage a challenger.”

Debates may only be attended by people intensely interested in politics, Pearson said, but they usually result in news stories offering challengers a rare opportunity to present their platforms. By being on stage with incumbents they begin to have creditability with voters, she added.

The League hasn’t given up on holding candidate forums. One strategy being attempted is to line up challengers and third-party candidates, if they exist, for candidate forums. That could force the hand of the incumbents, Tucker said.

When agreeing to participate in a candidate forum, it seems incumbents tend to like those held by the media. The only future event Peterson and Hughes will participate is sponsored by a Fargo television station and slated for October. Allison Myhre, who works for Peterson, said the congressman could not participate in a September debate because it fell during a week he was in Washington, D.C.

The campaign has been working with Minnesota Public Radio on another potential forum and the two candidates debated at Farm Fest in August, Myhre noted.

In media-sponsored debates the candidates generally are not before a live audience and the constituents do not get to ask questions, Tucker pointed out. “It’s a controlled environment, in a sense,” she said.

Part of the appeal of the League’s format is that audiences hear from candidates for an hour and a half and they have the opportunity to submit questions. Each candidate has an allotted time to answer each of the questions, allowing voters to hear their different approaches to pressing issues, she said.

The candidate forums offer “an opportunity to hear firsthand what their visions are and what they want to accomplish in office,” Tucker said. “It enables people to make a decision in a different way than when they’re hearing them separately.”

One major race where Tucker has been hoping to sponsor a forum is the closely contested 3rd District race between incumbent Republican Erik Paulsen and DFL challenger Terri Bonoff. She’s lined up five League affiliates and two nonprofits to sponsor a candidate forum, but Paulsen has yet to agree.

“We’re having a tough time with Paulsen…he knows it’s a competitive race and he’s trying to protect himself,” she said. Although a write-in candidate has emerged in former television news reporter Tim Sherno, his status may not trigger Paulsen’s interest or satisfy federal election regulations, Tucker said.

The race has resulted in at least one candidate forum, held in August by three local chambers of commerce, said Bonoff. Paulsen would only agree to that debate if it was held in August — rather than the campaign season of September and October, she said. The debate event cost $60 a person, Bonoff said, but it still drew more than 300 people.

She believes Paulsen will not debate because while he has portrayed himself as a moderate while voting with conservatives on many issues. He fails to acknowledge climate change and does not support gun control, pro-choice policies, gay marriage or transit, Bonoff said. “People don’t know his record, and that’s what debates would offer,” she said. “He does lack leadership on the major issues facing this country.”

Paulsen’s office did not offer a response, although a staffer who answered the phone said scheduling was always an issue. Meanwhile, Bonoff appeared at a candidate forum Sept. 14 at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

St. Paul League volunteers have struggled to get 4th District DFL Congresswoman Betty McCollum’s to a candidate forum with Republican opponent Greg Ryan, Tucker said. Her office responded that she will attend a forum sponsored by the Stillwater Gazette in early October.

No League debates have been planned for the bitter 8th District race pitting DFL incumbent Rick Nolan and the GOP’s Stewart Mills, though the candidates did participate Monday in a candidate forum co-sponsored by the Duluth News Tribune and the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce.

In the 2nd District contest between Republican Jason Lewis and the DFL’s Angie Craig, there will be no League debates, Tucker said. The League has no forum planned for the 5th Congressional District, either, where incumbent DFLer Keith Ellison is running against Republican Frank Nelson Drake. The only one lined up for certain is the 1st Congressional District, where Democratic incumbent Tim Walz agreed to a debate with Republican Jim Hagedorn in early October, as well as other candidate forums.

“This election season, Congressman Walz has agreed to participate in candidate forums in eastern, central, and western areas of the district in addition to his many meetings with constituents and organizations across southern Minnesota and he looks forward to a robust debate about who is better suited to represent southern Minnesota,” his campaign said in a statement.

Whether other incumbents might step up remains an open question. “All of this could change on a dime,” Tucker said.

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