Does Hatch have a reason to debate?
It was mere hours after advancing to a primary election that Dan Liljenquist threw down the gauntlet and challenged Orrin Hatch to a total of eight debates between then and the June 26 primary election. So far, Hatch’s campaign has responded with a cagey “we’ll see” citing the current Senator’s duties in Washington and the pre-convention debates. I think there’s a lot more to it, and the Hatch campaign has a fine line to walk.
It’s a very common tactic for a challenger campaign, especially one that isn’t as well-funded, to challenge the incumbent to a debate. It costs almost nothing aside from getting there and guarantees that all major and most minor media outlets are going to be talking about it. If the debate performance favors the incumbent, they’ll almost certainly accept the opportunity to allow their opponent to dig their own grave. If, however, the debate performance would benefit the challenger, there’s a strong disincentive to give them the free publicity. Given that the sense was that Liljenquist performed the best in the two pre-convention debates, I can see why Hatch would be hesitant to do it again. Debating, like many off-script events, is not his strong point. (Don’t believe it? Just look up the numerous videos on YouTube where he rips someone a new one for asking a very tough and pointed question.)
The counter to this is that the challenger can then make a stink about it in the press. The public doesn’t like the idea of incumbent entitlement, and refusal to address a challenger and prove your mettle as the better candidate rubs them the wrong way. Naturally, the press, cynical as they all, will jump all over this kind of argument. The backlash from appearing dismissive can be substantial, and it might be worse than a lackluster debate performance.
The question then becomes if you think that ignoring the challenger will do less damage than facing them in a well-publicized and covered debate. Right now, it appears that the Hatch camp is choosing the former, preferring to use the massive campaign war chest to do a media blitz with their army of paid staffers (36 by my last count). As a tactical choice, it might be the right one. Such a long-term incumbent has significant name recognition already, and, sad as it may be, many voters will vote for who they are familiar with.
So what should the Hatch campaign do? Try to have your cake and eat it too. Agree to one or two very closely-controlled debates to show that yes, you’ll face the voters, but minimize your chances for gaffes that can spread like wildfire. And what should the Liljenquist campaign do? Keep on hammering home that refusing debates is refusing to be accountable, an especially egregious action for a candidate that has already said he will not face the voters again.