Oct 22, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Political debates dwindle

Debates in competitive U.S. Senate elections
Data: Brookings Institution; Chart: Axios Visuals.

Political candidates are increasingly deciding not to participate in debates — and their rivals are trying to make them pay a price.

Why it matters: Debates — once conceived as a frank exchange about serious issues, then as a chance to score a few rhetorical points in front of a big audience — have become a casualty of politicians' increasing ability to bypass traditional media.

By the numbers: In 2020, there were a total of 17 debates across the 5 most competitive Senate races. This year, there will only be 7, according to Brookings.

Driving the news: Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for Arizona governor, put out an ad this week hitting Democrat Katie Hobbs for refusing to get onto a debate stage with Lake, a telegenic former TV news anchor.

  • Mehmet Oz released a similar ad in Pennsylvania, accusing Democrat John Fetterman, who suffered a stroke in May, of “dodging” debates. The two will debate just once, this coming Tuesday.

On the Republican side, Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker was a no-show to a debate with Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) last week, leaving Warnock to spar with little-known libertarian Chris Oliver and an empty podium.

  • The next day, Warnock’s campaign blasted out a fundraising email titled “I’m the only one who showed up last night,” asking recipients: “If Walker is running from a debate against me, why is he running for U.S. Senate?”

Details: Debates are disappearing in races up and down the ballot, all over the country.

  • The hotly contested Senate race in Nevada, a top target for Republicans, will be the only competitive Senate election this cycle without even a single debate, due to a stalemate between the two campaigns.
  • Missouri's Republican Senate candidate, Eric Schmitt, accused his Democratic foe, Trudy Busch Valentine, of "refusing to debate" — before failing to show up to a debate himself the following week.
  • Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) has also declined debates.
  • A debate between Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Republican challenger Yesli Vega was cancelled after Spanberger raised security concerns and objections to the moderator, the Washington Post reported.
  • Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, both Republicans, have refused to debate.

What's next: This trend is likely to continue, with some big potental stakes: The Republican National Committee cut ties with the Commission on Presidential Debates earlier this year.

Go deeper