Somewhere in The Book of Campaigning it is written, “If you are ahead in the polls then avoid debates. If you’re behind, push for them.”
That makes perfect sense from a strategy standpoint. A candidate who is ahead worries about losing ground, making a mistake, or putting a trailing opponent on equal footing. The candidate who is behind in the polls wants a chance to even up the odds.
So, given that, it is no surprise that Governor Jim Justice is refusing to debate his Republican opponents. When pressed on the question during Tuesday’s briefing, Justice said this:
“All of the polling that we have done would show that my closest opponent is probably in excess of forty percent (forty points?) away from me at this point in time, and the only thing that can happen from a debate is damage the Republican Party, damage us in a situation where we’re going to be running in the General Election to win and keep the majority in the Republican Party.”
It is possible that Justice would have a terrible debate performance, but still win the Primary and thus be a damaged candidate going into the General Election. But that is not the only outcome of a debate.
Another outcome would be that Republican and Independent voters would have an opportunity to see Justice, Woody Thrasher and Mike Folk together on a debate stage and judge for themselves who is the better candidate.
Justice may be the incumbent Governor, but he is not the incumbent Republican Party nominee. He was elected in 2016 as a Democrat and later switched parties. He may be the front runner, but he has yet to be chosen by the party.
Justice also said his commitment to all things Covid-19 precludes him from debating. “With all the stuff that I’m doing every day, why in the world would I be taking time from what I’m trying to take care of here, considering all those facts, and run out and do something political.”
The answer is that running for office is a political process. Justice always assumes the worst about politics, but it remains the system by which we choose leaders who obtain and exercise power.
True, Justice has pivoted from campaigning to leading the state through the pandemic and making tough decisions. He has made himself available to the press nearly every day. However, almost all questions have been about the pandemic.
There is more happening in West Virginia than the virus. There are legitimate issues such as public education, the opioid epidemic, the economy, roads and infrastructure, population stagnation and more.
Legitimate candidates have challenged Justice’s leadership. Like it or not, he has a responsibility to defend himself and justify why Republicans should, for the first time, nominate him. A debate would help voters make up their minds.