The debates — or lack there of — have just begun.
Grand Rapids television station WOOD-TV had a debate scheduled Monday evening between the Republican and Democratic candidates running for U.S. Senate — Terri Lynn Land, former Michigan Secretary of State, and U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D–Bloomfield Township).
However, because Land did not reply to the station’s invitation to the debate, WOOD-TV postponed the event. Peters, who had accepted his invitation, held a forum in Grand Rapids where he “debated” an empty chair with Land’s name on it.
The postponement was the latest development in the question of whether a public debate between the two candidates will be held before the November general election. A similar question has been raised in the state gubernatorial race, in which Democratic challenger Mark Schauer and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder have yet to accept invitations to the same debate.
In the Senate race, Peters has called for multiple televised debates and has accepted invitations from Michigan State University, WXYZ and the League of Women Voters along with the postponed WOOD-TV debate, none of which Land has replied to. The Peters campaign announced Tuesday that Peters’ debate negotiator John Cherry, lieutenant governor under Jennifer Granholm, would work to set up planning meetings with Land and groups who have offered to host debates.
“This is the first open U.S. Senate seat in over 20 years,” said Zade Alsawah, deputy communications director for Peters’ campaign. “And that’s why Gary feels it is so important that Michiganders hear from both candidates on the issues that matter most.”
The Senate seat Peters and Land are competing for is currently held by Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, who announced last year that he would be retiring and would not seek another term. Levin has represented Michigan for more than 30 years since winning his first race in 1978.
Land spokeswoman Heather Swift wrote in an e-mail that the campaign is currently evaluating opportunities for debates. Following the Peters event in Grand Rapids, Swift said he has differences in his Congressional Record and campaign material regarding issues such as equal pay, immigration and outsourcing.
“It’s only appropriate that Gary Peters’s first debate would be against Gary Peters,” Swift wrote. “Congressman Gary and Candidate Gary disagree on the issues that matter to Michigan voters.”
Aaron Kall, director of the University of Michigan Debate Team, said when it came to the state Senate race, it was unusual to see no debate in a race without incumbents. He pointed to Land’s previous public speaking experiences, however — she has mostly spoken from notes and in smaller settings — as a potential explanation.
“Because there’s no incumbent, both candidates are going to be less known by the public,” Kall said. “Debates, several of them, would give both candidates the opportunity to introduce themselves and make their positions more clear.”
In the 2012 U.S. Senate race, which pitted incumbent Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow against former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R–Holland), there were no debates. In the 2010 gubernatorial election, Snyder and Democratic challenger Virg Bernero had one debate, as well as a joint event at the Detroit Economic Club, a traditional forum for gubernatorial candidates.
Aside from the postponed WOOD-TV debate, the Schauer and Snyder campaigns have additionally been at odds over a proposed debate at the DEC. Both have accepted invitations to hold an event at the club on the same day, but at different times.
Emily Benavides, communications director of Snyder’s campaign, wrote in an e-mail interview that the governor offered two dates and times for the DEC event a month ago.
“The ball is in Congressman Schauer’s court,” Benavides wrote. “We look forward to discussing the issues facing Michiganders and are proud of our record.”
Schauer press secretary Cathy Bacile Cunningham wrote in an e-mail that the campaign is calling for televised evening debates because they are more accessible for the average voter.
“Voters have a big decision to make on Election Day, and they deserve to know where each candidate stands on the issues that affect them and their families,” Cunningham wrote.
The Schauer campaign announced Wednesday that it had also formally accepted invitations to debates from WXYZ, CBS Detroit and Michigan Public Television.
The lack of debate this election cycle is not unique to Michigan. Nationwide, high-profile Senate races in Tennessee and Mississippi have also included no debates. In the New York Democratic primary last week, incumbent Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has declined debating his closest opponent, called some debates a “disservice to democracy,” according to a report in The New York Times.
Kall said the overall aversion to debating in the current election cycle could be a result of the increased scrutiny that has come to characterize public debates.
“It’s a cost-benefit analysis,” he said of a campaign’s choice to engage in debates. “Clearly, if you avoid them, you’re going to take some heat in the press, in the media, because the media is the host of a lot of these debates, and so there may be a loss politically there. But if the debate actually happens and you have a total flop performance, then the voters are certainly going to see that.”