Every election cycle there is a debate over debates.
Typically, comfortable incumbents or candidates with a lead try to minimize the importance of head-to-head meetings with their opponents. Often, the front-runner will agree to only one, so they can say they debated.
Challengers usually push for more debates, sometimes an unreasonable number. They want to try to elevate themselves to an equal footing with their opponent while generating as much earned media as possible.
In West Virginia, Democratic Gubernatorial challenger Ben Salango announced Friday he has accepted five debate invitations, and he wants to meet incumbent Republican Governor Jim Justice at each one.
“Governor Justice and I have a lot to discuss,” Salango said.
The Justice campaign called Salango’s challenge a political stunt. “It’s not uncommon when a candidate is losing, and voters learn about their views to want to change the subject,” the Justice campaign said.
Alright, let’s sort this out.
This is a real race. Salango won a tough primary and has demonstrated that he is a vigorous campaigner with his own ideas and resources to push his message. Justice had an overwhelming victory in the Primary Election and now is asking voters for a second term, but this time as a Republican.
Justice and Salango have both agreed to one debate October 13, sponsored by the West Virginia Broadcasters Association. That debate will be one hour long and follow a traditional format.
I will once again be the debate moderator. Having moderated previous gubernatorial and U.S. Senate debates, I can assure you that one debate is not enough to cover all the issues or give the candidates enough opportunities to explain themselves.
A second debate would be invaluable. That way the questioners could use the candidates’ answers from the previous debate, fact check, and push beyond the well-rehearsed talking points.
And after that, how about a third debate with a different format? This head-to-head could be a two-hour long virtual town hall with questions from voters.
Two traditional debates and a town hall would give West Virginians plenty of opportunities to see where the candidates stand and how they conduct themselves under pressure.
Justice frequently dismisses what he does not like about governing as “politics,” and he threw shade at Salango Friday as “a young guy who doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about.”
If that is really the case, Justice should be anxious for opportunities to dismantle his opponent on a debate stage.
The state has myriad challenges beyond the historic pandemic—roads and broadband, public education, jobs and economic growth, declining population, on and on. West Virginia’s chief executive wields tremendous power to deal with those challenges.
Ultimately, this campaign is not about what is best for the candidates or their campaigns, but rather what is best for West Virginians. These two candidates should meet each other face-to-face at least two, and hopefully three, times so the voters can make the best decision.
There should be no debate about that.