CLEVELAND, OHIO – SEPTEMBER 29: U.S. President Donald Trump and former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak during the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. This is the first of three planned debates between the two candidates in the lead up to the election on November 3. (Photo by Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images)
“A presidential debate is a job interview. And voters look for certain traits in people applying to be president,” said journalist Ron Fournier.
You can substitute ‘congressional’ or ‘state house’ for ‘president,’ but here we are, barreling toward the Nov. 3 election and we will apparently get there with little opportunity for Tennesseans to screen their candidates for the jobs they seek.
We’ve had one bizarre presidential debate and Nashville’s Belmont University hosts another debate Thursday, but there have been no debates between Tennessee U.S. Senate candidates, congressional candidates or state house and senate candidates.
That’s a big problem, because politicians are never more accessible than when they are running for office — applying for the job, if you will. Voters shouldn’t believe a candidate, or an incumbent, has their best interests in mind if he or she isn’t willing to defend their ideas or platform publicly.
In 2018, Democratic candidate Phil Bredesen and now-U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn faced off in three debates, each held in a different grand division of the state. Neither did a spectacular job but the events gave voters who otherwise wouldn’t have heard them speak the opportunity to see how they comported themselves when challenged.
This year, Tennesseans won’t get that chance with Senate candidates Bill Hagerty, R-Nashville and Marquita Bradshaw, D-Nashville.
Shortly after Bradshaw won the August primary, she said she wasn’t inclined to debate, but later changed her mind. And Nashville TV station WKRN, the area’s ABC affiliate, scheduled a debate but later called it off over quibbles about debate rules. To be fair to Bradshaw, Hagerty was uninterested in debating his opponent in the Republican primary, Dr. Manny Sethi and has shown no inclination to debate Bradshaw.
But it’s not only the Senate race lacking public forums. There are no debates scheduled in any of the races for the nine congressional seats, in which the incumbents all have at least nominal opposition.
In Knoxville Congressional District 2, Democratic candidate Renee Hoyos showed up (virtually) for an Oct. 8 forum hosted by the League of Women Voters, the YWCA, the Knoxville Education Association and the NAACP, among other organizations.
Incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett was a no-show.
In a final example, 7th District Congressman Mark Green was caught on video last week at a Williamson County poll by his 2018 opponent, Justin Kanew, who runs the progressive media outlet The Tennessee Holler.
Kanew asked Green, who wouldn’t debate in 2018 when he first ran for Congress, why he wouldn’t meet his current challenger, Kiran Sreepada, in a debate or forum.
“I’ve never seen a congressman do a debate,” said Green.
Public forums were once a staple of campaigns, but in recent years incumbents or those perceived to be frontrunners have refused to do them. Whatever the reason – whether they feel they are putting themselves at a risk for saying something harmful to their campaign or whether they feel it gives their opponent legitimacy – there are definitely losers: Tennessee voters.
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