MOBILE, Ala (WKRG) — It’s an election that features a U.S. Senate seat open for the first time in 36 years, and a Governor’s race with eight challengers of an incumbent within her own party. But when Alabama voters go to the polls Tuesday, they will do so without seeing any televised statewide debates in either of these unique races.
Political consultants say “get used to it.”
WKRG and parent company Nexstar Broadcasting had arranged a Republican Senate debate to be televised statewide. Mike Durant, however, declined, and Katie Britt said she wouldn’t debate if Durant didn’t.
“I think it sort of makes you look like a political coward,” said Mobile-based political writer Quin Hillyer. “The people of Alabama deserve to have candidates who will answer questions.”
In the governor’s race, Kay Ivey did not debate four years ago and will not debate this year either.
“It would be nice if the high stepper, high-stepped high enough to a debate podium,” said Hillyer, mocking Ivey’s catchy slogan.
Ivey was elected without a runoff four years ago without debating and could do the same this year. Tommy Tuberville copied the strategy two years ago and was elected to the U.S. Senate without debating. Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson refused to debate challenger Fred Richardson last year.
“The goal of every candidate is to win,” said Jon Gray, a Mobile-based political strategist who has managed dozens of campaigns in Alabama. “Every one of these strategic decisions comes down to ‘does it help me win?’ If you’re a candidate and you’re behind, you want to debate”
In the Governor’s race right now, that is Tim James, who polls show trailing Ivey by a wide margin.
“A governor really needs to put themselves out there, to be challenged in public, with reporters and everybody else,” James said.
One argument for having debates is that all the Republican candidates, regardless of office, are saying the same things in their television ads. They are pro-Trump, pro-gun, Pro-God, and pro-life. They are anti-immigrant, and anti-transgender.
That’s why many say they want to see the candidates head to head. But Gray said debates are a no-win proposition for front-running candidates.
“If you’re a guy and you’re winning with 42% of the vote, or if you’re a lady and you’re ahead, why would you do it,” he asked.
Gray said front-running candidates don’t want to risk saying anything off message, especially when technology now allows them to direct targeted messages to voters, risk-free.
“They don’t want to do that anymore because they can now do that through the digital medium, on their own, and completely control the narrative,” Gray said. “In your mailbox, there might be something about the 2nd Amendment if you’ve been identified as finding that important. You may be getting digital ads about an issue that’s important to you based on your Google search history or your Facebook history.
Hillyer said that’s a cynical approach that does a disservice to the election process.
“If you never answer questions, if you just hide behind your pre-produced TV spots, does the public really know you,” he asked.
Gray said the candidates don’t necessarily care about what is best for the democratic process.
“Candidates are in it to win,” Gray said. “That’s it.”
Gray said the public might not care if there are statewide debates.
“The regular viewers aren’t tuning in at 7:30 for some random debate about Governor,” he said.