The old rules of debates in big Senate races do not apply to this modern era of politics.
Senior campaign advisers are casting aside the principle that an incumbent would rarely agree to more than one or two debates against a challenger. And it used to be that only those trailing in public and private polling wanted debates, in hopes of delivering a memorable quip or other game-changing moment.
All across the top Senate races this fall, which will determine who takes charge of the now evenly split 50-50 chamber, campaigns are using the debate over debates as a subtext to their overall argument about their opponent’s fitness for office.
This comes as Democrats, even some who are ahead now in their races, are eager to force their GOP challengers onto a stage to face questions from a traditional newscaster. That’s because of the increasingly common strategy by some Republicans to simply avoid most interactions with mainstream media in their states.
“The flaws of the Republican candidates deserve the spotlight that a debate brings,” said David Bergstein, the top spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
But Republicans see their line of attack — demanding time on the debate stage against Democrats, particularly Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman — as part of their broader campaign.
“The debate over debates is not really a debate over debates,” said Chris Hartline, the top spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Since suffering a massive stroke in May, Fetterman has taken a light approach to the campaign trail, spending more than two months almost entirely at home in western Pennsylvania. His opponent, Mehmet Oz, stayed mostly silent as Fetterman tried to recover, but he fell steadily behind as the Democratic campaign unloaded a blistering set of ads that far outspent anything Republicans countered with.
Now, Oz is pushing for debates as a way to force Fetterman to discuss both the overall state of his health and to answer for some of the more liberal positions he has taken in the past.
“These are debates, five of them offered by major media companies. And I think that answer reveals one of the reasons,” Oz told Hugh Hewitt on Thursday, after the conservative radio host played a clip of Fetterman giving an uneven policy answer to an MSNBC anchor. “He has a very difficult time talking about policy. Now, this is evident before his stroke. It’s not new.”
Fetterman, who has acknowledged that he is still struggling with some speech effects from the stroke, accused Oz of “mocking a stroke survivor” and rejected his first debate offer for this month. Instead, he has agreed to a single debate, in October, and now the two sides are clashing over which debates and which media outlets should host.
Hartline believes that merely discussing the issue of how many debates to have, which is a focus of local media but not GOP advertising, is helping Oz blunt Fetterman’s overall image as a big tough guy who connects with working-class voters.
“In order to get there to talk about his ideology on issues, you have to break down his brand. And this is one way to do it,” Hartline said.
In Georgia, Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) has tried to work the debate issue to his advantage. Beginning just days after the May primary, he has demanded at least three debates with Republican Herschel Walker, a former college football and NFL star who refused to debate his GOP opponents in the primary.
Walker has generally steered his campaign appearances to friendly local audiences and conservative media outlets, producing some moments that revealed a lack of understanding about how the federal government works. Appearing before one conservative audience, Walker claimed that someone had to be “185 years old” in order to be a racist.
If they can get him on the debate stage, Democrats suspect that Walker would falter and almost disqualify himself as a Senate candidate in such a critical contest.
“It plays into the broader narrative,” Hartline said, noting that the Democrat has focused on accusations that Walker is “not up to the job. That’s essentially Warnock’s entire campaign.”
Walker has agreed to one debate, but not any of the three that Warnock suggested. Now, they are having a quarrel similar to that of the Pennsylvania candidates.
General-election debates are usually dry affairs for which the competing camps have spent weeks preparing each candidate on how to avoid walking into political traps and rehearsing a few zingers that they hope the media will focus on in their post-mortem stories.
But in very close races, small mistakes can prove decisive, or at least knock a campaign in the wrong direction for a few days. In early October 2016, then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) told a New Hampshire debate moderator that “absolutely” Donald Trump could be a role model for young children — a comment she spent weeks trying to explain, especially after revelations that the future president had at least once bragged about sexually abusing women.
Ayotte lost her race by about 1,000 votes.
That same year, then-candidate Catherine Cortez Masto (D) delivered a strong performance in the only debate in a race to replace retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). Her GOP opponent, Joseph J. Heck, stumbled trying to explain why he pulled his endorsement of Trump. Cortez Masto won with just 47 percent of the vote, as almost 4 percent of voters refused to vote for either candidate, many of whom might have been Trump supporters unwilling to support Heck.
Cortez Masto is now demanding that her GOP opponent, Adam Laxalt, agree to three debates, perhaps believing she can repeat that performance from six years ago.
Bergstein noted that, regardless of whether candidates like Walker ever debate their opponents, Democrats have devoted resources to mining all the appearances that Republicans have made on conservative news outlets.
Feeling comfortable before friendly audiences, these GOP candidates have made statements that are now being turned against them in the general election — an August digital ad from the DSCC, against Blake Masters, highlighted “weird” comments made entirely by the Arizona Republican himself, either on social media or in appearances.
“Now voters are learning about Republican candidates through paid advertising over a longer period of time. It’s heavily focused on Republican candidates in their own words,” Bergstein said.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) announced on Friday, before the state’s GOP primary vote on Tuesday, that she would accept three debates. The front-runners are an experienced state legislator who would probably welcome the opportunity to be onstage with her three times, and a retired Army brigadier general with virtually no political experience.
Some races have taken on a more traditional approach, such as in Washington state, where the 30-year incumbent, Sen. Patty Murray (D), has been batting away suggestions from her opponent that they debate four times.
And in Arizona, Masters has been clamoring for more than the one debate that Sen. Mark Kelly (D) has agreed to so far.
In 2018, when Hartline served as a senior adviser in the campaign of Florida’s GOP governor, Rick Scott, to unseat Sen. Bill Nelson (D), the incumbent agreed to three debates but backed out of the last two, citing the need to focus on helping the state rebuild after a hurricane.
Scott’s camp assumed Nelson, 76 at the time, just wanted to play it safe and avoid any potential stumbles, Hartline said.
Scott won by one-tenth of a percentage point, out of more than 8 million total votes. Hartline cited Scott’s favorite saying when asked if the race’s outcome would have been different if Nelson had done two more debates.
“When you win by 10,033 votes,” Hartline said, “everything is the reason you won or lost.”