Analysis: In the dance over Texas debates, some would rather be wallflowers

Bob Daemmrich

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Maybe your own personal idea of boredom is to sit on the couch some fall evening, watching a couple of politicians yammer at each other about which one most deserves your support at the polls in November.

Or perhaps you’re interested in politics, in what the winners will do for or to the state and the country after they’re elected, and you want to see which candidate might rise from the trivial muck of everyday campaigning and make Texas voters proud of what’s happening in government.

It’s a tossup — and, as usual, it’s not up to us. It’s up to them. And in these dog days that precede the final sprint to the elections, the debate over debates is on. It’s taken some funny turns this time around.

These debate debates are a combination of unknown or underdog candidates desperately clutching at public attention, and a kind of acid test for the arrogance of incumbents and political front-runners.

The candidate running behind just wants to get on stage, where voters (and donors and maybe even the news media) can see how they match up with the candidate running ahead. It puts them, literally, on level ground, if only for an hour or two. Once there, they hope to win the political lottery, to luck into an idea or turn of phrase attractive to voters or, more likely, to set the table for the competition to make a horrible mistake.

The state’s two highest-ranking Republican incumbents on the ballot got out in front of their challengers to set the terms, instead of the more common play of coyly laying back and then reluctantly acquiescing after long and tiresome negotiations.

Gov. Greg Abbott accepted an invitation from a chain of TV stations — the Nexstar Media Group — to debate Democrat Lupe Valdez at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 28. And he did it before Valdez had time to challenge him to put up his dukes. She has since proposed a different date, and they’re presumably working out those differences. But Abbott’s unconventional move seized the initiative and deflated her chances of getting some attention with a noisy challenge to come out and fight.

She’s going to have a hard time calling the governor a chicken, since he proposed a debate before she did. Advantage: Abbott.

Candidates with an advantage usually see debates the way turkeys see Thanksgiving — as a recurring calendar event with a terrible risk and not much upside. The best outcome is that the candidates are in the same shape coming out of the debate they were in when they entered it.

Some birds, however, live for thrills like this. Look at U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a debating maven who’s been on stages like this in courtrooms, in a previous run for Senate, in his run for the Republican presidential nomination, and in school settings before his professional and political career began. He’s the rare political creature who actually thrives on this stuff, and it shows in his campaign manager’s offer to Democrat Beto O’Rourke this week after O’Rourke had proposed six debates.

“As Sen. Cruz has long believed, our democratic process is best served by presenting a clear and substantive contrast of competing policy ideas, and these five debates will be an excellent way for both you and the senator to share your respective visions with Texas voters in the weeks leading up to the November election,” Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager, wrote in a public letter to the challenger.

His proposal is not normal for an incumbent; Todd Smith’s response to a debate question is normal. Allen Blakemore’s response is normal.

Smith is the chief political adviser to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who apparently doesn’t want to debate Kim Olson, his Democratic challenger.

“It’ll be a cold day in Texas before we give our opponent the opportunity to have free name recognition by having a debate,” Smith told The Dallas Morning News.

Blakemore, a consultant to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, worked in a swipe at Mike Collier, the Democratic challenger in that race: “It’s no secret Lt. Gov. Patrick relishes debates, but since his opponent shows no sign of grasping even the most basic rudiments of state government, our campaign has no plans to debate him.”

They’re assuming people might actually watch these candidates argue, itself a debatable notion. And there’s plenty of time for these public spats between Collier and Patrick and Olson and Miller to play out. These often end with reluctant incumbents agreeing to low-risk forums. None of them is particularly well known in Texas — this isn’t show business, or even national politics.

The incumbents have the edge, though, which is why, if they agree to anything, they’ll still try to set things to their liking: Someplace quiet and out of the way, on a Friday night in football season, staged by a local cable access channel, while the state’s voters are busy with other things.

Disclosure: Allen Blakemore has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.



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