LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan voters have viewed at least $20 million worth of political ads in competitive gubernatorial and U.S. Senate campaigns.
But whether they will see Gov. Rick Snyder and Mark Schauer or Terri Lynn Land and Gary Peters side by side this fall — in unfiltered, one-on-one debates — is in question. Debates, while still vital in presidential contests, appear to have lost cachet in Michigan’s statewide races.
In 2010, Snyder and Democrat Virg Bernero had just one debate in the governor’s race, breaking from the tradition of at least two and sometimes three debates. Two years later, incumbent Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow and GOP challenger Pete Hoekstra could not agree on even one debate.
Because those precedents were set, political strategists say they would not be shocked if no debates are scheduled this year.
“It seemed like in the past you had to do a debate. But I’m not sure that that’s the case anymore,” said Dave Doyle, a Republican consultant with Marketing Resource Group in Lansing. “There doesn’t seem to be the pressure that builds that has built in the past for debates.”
Doyle predicted, however, that there probably will be one debate in each race this year. Another MRG political strategist, Tom Shields, said voters have come to expect at least one public debate from statewide candidates.
While it is only August and debates often are not held until October, communications are not going smoothly between the Snyder and Schauer gubernatorial campaigns. And it is unclear if Land, who Peters is challenging to five debates in the Senate contest, will agree to debate.
Peters, a three-term Democratic congressman, said he has committed to debate invitations from WXYZ-TV in Detroit, WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids and Michigan State University’s student government. Land, a former GOP secretary of state, so far has not indicated that she is open to debates, saying she looks forward to “joint appearances.”
Former Lt. Gov. John Cherry, recently chosen to be Peters’ debate coordinator, said a joint appearance such as a forum serves little purpose if it is a “give a speech and go home sort of thing.” He highlighted the fact that it is the first open Senate seat in 20 years.
“In that context, debates ought to happen. I would think that that’s not something just we would be advocating for. I think you’re going to find a lot more interest by the media outlets to see debates happen. I think the public’s going to want to see more and more debates happening,” he said. “I think pressure will be intensified over what happened in the Hoekstra-Stabenow campaign. ... In that context, I think it would be more likely that debates will occur.”
A message seeking comment was left with the Land campaign.
Debates allow for give and take between the candidates on policy positions and can give voters a sense of their demeanor, stature and whether they appear capable for the public office being sought. While debate exchanges can still come across as scripted, they are less so than ads and campaign stops.
Challengers tend to demand more debates while incumbents want fewer.
Schauer, for instance, is calling for four debates. Snyder so far is focused on an invite from the Detroit Economic Club, which in 2010 hosted an event in which he and Bernero answered questions from the audience but were not on stage at the same time.
Emails among the campaigns and the club’s president and CEO Beth Chappell indicate no agreement is imminent, and it is also unclear if the format would be a true debate or something else.
The club initially proposed a lunch-hour debate. The Schauer campaign responded that debate scheduling was on hold because Snyder was “refusing to participate in any debates.” The Snyder camp later sent an email agreeing to appear Oct. 13.
The Schauer camp said he could not do that afternoon but was free that evening, and then 10 minutes later released a statement to reporters saying he had formally accepted that debate and another one from WOOD-TV.
The Snyder campaign responded to the club that the governor had an event that night but was available Oct. 6, during the afternoon timeframe initially suggested by Chappell.
“Gov. Snyder has now offered two dates and times to debate in front of the Detroit Economic Club. The ball is in Congressman Schauer’s court,” said Snyder campaign manager Kyle Robertson. “We look forward to discussing the issues facing Michiganders and are proud of our record.”
Schauer spokeswoman Cathy Bacile Cunningham said an afternoon debate would be less than ideal.
“We are calling for evening televised debates,” she said. “The reason is more voters have an opportunity to see both candidates debate the issues that affect them and their families side by side.”
Follow David Eggert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00