Iowa political candidates pressure opponents for debates

Tyler Kingkade

It’s only a few minutes after Democratic Senate candidate Roxanne Conlin walked into the Democratic Party office in Ankeny clutching a Diet Coke when she begins to remind her supporters her incumbent opponent, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), hasn’t agreed to a debate.

“Lincoln-Douglas-style debates, just the two of us,” Conlin said in Ankeny. “Just the two of us on a stage talking to each other and asking each other questions. He has had 30 years to get his talking points.”

She said the only event they have both accepted is a debate on an Iowa Public Television show called Iowa Press. But it’s not enough for her.

Conlin said it’s “not fair” for Grassley to avoid debates in the campaign, as she asked her supporters to write and call his office to press him on the issue.

“With over 50 years in elected office, Iowans deserve to hear Sen. Grassley defend his Senate votes,” Conlin said days later. “He should stop being a coward and explain why he voted to bail out Wall Street, why he voted five times for tax breaks to companies who ship our jobs overseas and why he drove the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.”

Conlin will not let the issue go. She has challenged him to 12 debates in 12 cities with live audiences, and offers stand from several major Iowa media outlets. Grassley said he looks forward to debates but said his Senate schedule does not allow him as much free time as Conlin. Now, she’s playing off of Grassley’s wife’s comments.

In Iowa’s Second Congressional District, Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks wants a debate with incumbent Democrat Rep. Dave Loebsack. And while campaigning for Miller-Meeks, Barbara Grassley said Miller-Meeks should put increased pressure on Loebsack.

Barbara Grassley was reported as having said Miller-Meeks should notify Loebsack of a certain time, date and place for a debate and if he does not show to “do the empty chair routine.” The Conlin campaign, playing off of that comment, said it’d do the same.

The Conlin campaign is now extending an invitation to Grassley to debate on Sunday, Sept. 19 in Des Moines, said Conlin spokeswoman Paulee Lipsman.

Flat-out saying ‘no’

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who represents 33 Iowa counties in the 5th District, indicated earlier in the summer he was open to a debate. He even stated he liked to debate. That was before his Democratic challenger, Matt Campbell, showed up at King’s town hall meeting on Aug. 30 and asked him in person if he’d schedule a debate.

“And my answer to that is judging by the fashion in which you have conducted your campaign, you have not earned it. Thank you, next question,” King said, looking directly at Campbell.

Some audience members broke into applause while others, including a man who identified himself as a tea party member, stood up and said King should debate Campbell.

Campbell pressed, asking, “How have I not earned a debate? I’m the Democratic nominee, I’ve won a competitive race.” But King ignored Campbell.

“Steve King’s ego is causing a theft of a public right,” Campbell said the next day. “Every election year Steve King says he likes debate and then never participates in one.”

King has not debated a Congressional opponent since being elected in 2002.

“This is a different era in politics; in 2010 everything goes,” said Steffen Schmidt, professor of political science. “When your opponent won’t debate you, you’ve got to use every measure you can.”

Schmidt, who regularly appears as a political analyst on Iowa Public Radio, pointed out most incumbents do not want to debate challengers because it doesn’t benefit them politically.

“Usually when candidates won’t debate, it puts pressure on them because the voters will start saying, ‘Well, why don’t you want to debate them?'” Schmidt said.

“I have long said I will debate if my opponent develops an issues-based campaign,” King said in a statement. “Clearly he has not and his most recent ‘fraternity prank’ at Western Iowa Tech Community College is conclusive.

“Any discussion in favor of a debate is therefore concluded. There will be no debate.”

Schmidt said whether it was a proper move or not for Campbell to appear at King’s town hall, it was a good move because it garnered so much publicity.

Debate challenges around the country

Candidates challenging incumbents to debates is not an isolated issue. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has largely avoided debating her GOP opponents and agreed to one with her Republican challenger Carly Fiorina. Boxer barely leads Fiorina in the polls, 44-43.

In states where there is no incumbent in the race, like South Carolina and Vermont, the tactic of challenging opponents to debates is employed.

Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, Republican nominee for Vermont’s gubernatorial race, said he wanted 12 debates around the state against whoever his Democratic opponent would be.

Once he was certified as the Democratic nominee, Peter Shumlin said he welcomed the challenge.

In South Carolina, Democrat Vincent Sheheen told Republican Nikki Haley they should do Lincoln-Douglas style debates. Haley, who leads in the polls, cautiously said they would but Sheheen’s campaign would not dictate the format.

Campbell, Conlin and Miller-Meeks trail in the polls against their opponents, but remain hopeful that if they get their wish of scheduling debates the playing field would level.