If you envision a career in Congress, there are several aspects of the job you have to accept: You work 15 to 20 hour days and weekends, you have to raise big bucks, and, once upon a time, you had to meet with your constituents.
Even when they’re angry, fearful or contrarian.
There used to be another part of the job description in the TV age of politics: You should be willing to debate your opponent, and show up to various forums sponsored by civic groups like the League of Women Voters, schools, or the Rotary Club.
But here in the 2018 mid-terms, we find a number of Republican incumbents or nominees ducking the debates.
Democratic 8th Congressional District nominee William Tanoos became the latest to find an incumbent Republican congressmen unwilling to match ideas and wit on a public stage, in front of TV cameras and radio mics. He joins 3rd CD nominee Courtney Tritch, 6th CD nominee Jeannine Lee Lake and 9th CD nominee Liz Watson in alleging that U.S. Reps. Larry Bucshon, Jim Banks and Trey Hollingsworth won’t debate along with 6th CD nominee Greg Pence.
Tanoos said that WNIN and the Evansville Courier & Press offered three dates for debate: Oct. 22, Oct. 24, and Nov. 1. “This is a basic part of the democratic process,” said Tanoos about his disappointment that Dr. Bucshon declined.
Bucshon spokesman Andrew Hansen told the Courier & Press, “Based on his ongoing direct engagement with Hoosiers and deep public record, voters in the 8th District are familiar with Bucshon’s strong record of accomplishments on their behalf and where he stands on the issues, and he does not see the utility in debates leading up to the election.”
To Bucshon’s credit, he’s conducted several town hall sessions over the past year and has found angry, agitated and contrarian constituents. But while his town halls could be emotional, the folks were testy but peaceful. Hoosiers tend to be that way.
Tritch explained, “Everywhere I go people ask me that same question and it’s just sad to me. This election isn’t about party. It’s about who actually has a vision for this country.” Banks’ congressional office spokesman Matt Lahr told me he will debate. “We are working on scheduling,” Lahr said.
Watson campaign manager Brian Peters told me that Rep. Hollingsworth “has turned down about a dozen groups now. He has turned down two city chambers of commerce, local newspapers, community groups, college students, the list goes on and on. It would be comical if this election wasn’t so important. They aren’t even pretending to consider invites now, they are just flat out ignoring everyone.” Peters said Hollingworth skipped an Indianapolis health forum, but was seen heading into a nearby Ruth’s Cris Steakhouse.
Hollingsworth did schedule one town hall session in Scottsburg last winter and Watson decided to show up with supporters. The freshman Republican abruptly cancelled, citing a “security concern.”
“My opponent hasn’t held a single town hall and, in fact, cancelled the one and only town hall he was supposed to hold when I announced I was going,” Watson said. Was there a threat? “I worked very hard to run that down. I certainly wasn’t going to show up with my supporters if that was the case because I wouldn’t want to put anyone in harm’s way. I could find no evidence.”
Pence, the brother of the vice president, isn’t doing town halls, debates or even media interviews. Apparently be believes the name is as good as a punched ticket.
Why would these Republicans duck debates and town halls? Because their political consultants are advising them not to expose themselves. Hoosier Republicans drew the maps in 2011, and in my latest election forecast, seven of the nine Republicans are in my “safe” category. They’re essentially cinches for reelection mostly by the way the maps were drawn. Hollingsworth and Rep. Jackie Walorski are heavy favorites.
So a savvy political consultant will say: Endure a couple news cycles of bad headlines as opposed to making the kind of blunder 2012 Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock did in his race against Joe Donnelly that cost him any chance of winning.
The consultants will point to a Bloomington town hall U.S. Rep. Baron Hill conducted in 2009 when he banned audio recorders, at one point telling a high school student, “No one tells me how to run my office.” He lost to Todd Young a year later.
I was with then U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly at a Kokomo town hall on a sultry night in 2009 as the Tea Party gained steam. It was moved outside to accommodate an angry, agitated and contrarian crowd. I even loaned Donnelly my shades, but the real political pros know how to explain, commiserate, console and deflect. Donnelly survived the night and won reelection the following year despite his vote for Obamacare.
Not all Republicans are fearful. Walorski is going to debate Democratic challenger Mel Hall. Republican Mike Braun will do two statewide televised debates with Donnelly in October.
They must realize that one of the saddest aspects of participatory democracy is when a public servant or wannabe becomes fearful of the people they want to lead.