Gov. Paul LePage said Monday he's leaning toward not doing any debates in the race for the Blaine House because he doesn't want to share a stage with his Democratic challenger, Rep. Mike Michaud. The governor made the comment during an interview with WMTW News 8 for a political profile piece that is set to air in early October. "I won't be on a stage with Mike Michaud -- I don't think -- from here on out," LePage said.
Maine's three-way gubernatorial race is one of the most fascinating contests of the year, but if voters are looking forward to the upcoming debates, they should start lowering their expectations (thanks to reader C.G. for the tip).
Apparently, an independent group ran a television ad in Maine recently, calling attention to the far-right governor characterizing Social Security as "welfare." LePage didn't like the ad, urged Michaud to denounce it, and when the Democrat declined, the Republican incumbent decided he'd use this as a justification not to debate.
Note, there's a debate already set for Oct. 21 in Maine, scheduled to include LePage, Michaud, and independent Eliot Culter, but as of yesterday, the governor is no longer inclined to show up.
And this got me thinking: how many other candidates in tough statewide races are also refusing to debate?
I added the "tough" qualifier because there are some races in which the incumbent is such a lock to win re-election that he or she just doesn't see much of a point in participating in a debate. If a lawmaker is facing token opposition and is likely to will win by 40+ points, there's no real public expectation that he or she will share a stage for an hour with a rival with no chance of success.
But in competitive contests, voters have come to expect top-of-the-ticket policymakers to engage their challengers in a public forum. And for the most part, incumbents and challenger oblige, fearful that they'll be labeled a "coward" for refusing.
To be sure, some incumbents are reluctant to debate, but they usually come around in the end. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) clearly didn't want to debate, but he finally accepted an invitation yesterday. Texas' Greg Abbott (R) wasn't eager to share a stage with Wendy Davis (D), but they debated last week. Louisiana's Bill Cassidy (R) balked for quite a while before agreeing to debate Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), but they're scheduled to have two events before the election.
So who's refusing? It looks like the "No Debate" Club has just two members: Terri Lynn Land, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Michigan who's going out of her way to avoid potentially embarrassing interactions, and LePage.
And in close races, that's it. That's the club.
There's room for discussion about how much voters actually learn during these debates, which tend to feature short, sound-bite-style answers and overly scripted "zinergs," but candidates who refuse -- especially when other candidates agree -- run the risk of looking ridiculous.
Are debates required? No. Do candidates who are too scared to share the stage with a rival come across as weak? Yes.