Politics & Policy

When Does a Challenger Duck Debates?

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)
When it’s Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Kentucky secretary of state Alison Lundergan Grimes has declined another invitation to debate Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), explaining that she has to be in Tennessee that day for an event at her alma mater.

“The campaign of U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes said Tuesday that a scheduling conflict would prevent her from agreeing to a September 5 debate at WHAS-TV,” Joe Arnold wrote. “The campaign of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had accepted WHAS-TV’s debate compromise proposal one day earlier, explaining that September 5, one of the dates proposed by the television station, is ‘the only date we have available.’”

McConnell’s campaign cited it as evidence that she’s not ready to be a senator. “Alison Lundergan Grimes constantly demonstrates her inability to lead and a horrifying lack of understanding on issues that aren’t covered in her Obama talking points,” spokeswoman Allison Moore told National Review Online. “So it is not surprising that she would flee to Tennessee rather than debate Senator McConnell on the issues Kentuckians care about.” 

Grimes also declined to attend a debate hosted by another local outlet, WDRB, after McConnell accepted the invitation. It’s true that Grimes has agreed to participate in an October 13 debate, but, from the beginning of the race, McConnell has been far more eager to have a direct confrontation. He invited her to three Lincoln-Douglas-style debates with no audience in the room. They would have taken place throughout the summer, had she accepted.

Grimes refused, saying, according to the Associated Press, that “she wants an audience and debates in September or October when more people will be paying attention to the election.”

This is quite a role reversal for McConnell and Grimes. Traditionally, challengers want as many debates as possible while incumbents and front-runners view debates as risky formats that dignify their opponents and create the potential for a gaffe that could upset the race. That’s why Abraham Lincoln challenged Stephen Douglas to their famous series of debates, in fact.

“Douglas felt trapped,” historian Harold Holzer wrote in the Washington Post in 2012. “If he declined, he might be accused of cowardice. If he accepted, he would cede a platform to a comparatively unknown upstart. In the end, Douglas chose to accommodate Lincoln and debate seven times.”

McConnell is acting like he has the most to gain from being juxtaposed with his opponent, yet he’s not quite impeccable when speaking off the cuff. “I prefer the news of that day to be what I’d like for it to be, rather than what you all may be interested in pursuing,” McConnell told reporters at a testy press conference in April.

And last week, he told Politico that if Republicans take the Senate, he will attach policy riders to must-pass spending bills and allowed that such a tactic could result in a government shutdown if the president vetoed the bills. “He would have to make a decision on a given bill, whether there’s more in it that he likes than dislikes,” McConnell said.

“Any Republican running for Senate in a toss-up race or swing-state cringed when McConnell said that because all it does is provoke questions about whether or not Republicans are going to shut down the government,” according to one Republican strategist. “Also, [it’s] hard not to see the irony in McConnell, who didn’t back conservatives during defund, now threatening a shutdown if he becomes leader — at the worst possible time.”

Yet Grimes still seems to worry about debating McConnell too often. Perhaps she is influenced by her performance on the stump so far: Last week, for instance, when she spoke at a Kentucky Farm Bureau event, she gave McConnell allies plenty of material to suggest that she’s just not good at communicating with voters.

Consider her comment on McConnell’s immigration record. “These and many more things are what we can accomplish if we had a senator that didn’t just want to do piecemeal-by-piecemeal comprehensive immigration reform,” she said. “Thirty years, that’s how long Mitch McConnell has been there, and he wants six more just to do it, year by year, what many are already doing right now in the United States Senate.”

A Politico report concluded that Grimes “sounded rehearsed, her answers hewing closely to talking points.”

Gaffes happen, and nobody is perfect on the fly, but these difficulties have plagued the Democratic hopeful from the beginning of the race.

When Grimes announced her candidacy against McConnell last year, she was late for the event. Wooden, she stumbled over her words during a brief statement and took only two questions; observers described it as “one of the worst rollouts ever” and wondered if it was “a momentary headache or a symptom of some bigger problem.”

From her recent performance and her reluctance to debate McConnell, it seems that her team does indeed worry that rollout was a sign of things to come.

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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