By Luke Ramseth of The Clarion Ledger
The Republican front-runner in the governor’s race, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, ducked the first two debates of this campaign season.
And Treasurer Lynn Fitch, perhaps the best-known name in the attorney general race, also skipped the first two debates of that contest last week.
The no-shows have frustrated Fitch’s and Reeves’ opponents, and led to questions of why they couldn’t attend not once, but twice.
Representatives for Reeves and Fitch insist it’s about scheduling conflicts. The three Republican gubernatorial candidates, including Reeves, did recently agree to a single televised debate before the August primary, hosted by WJTV-TV next month.
And Fitch and Reeves have attended many candidate forums, their spokespeople point out. But some argue forums — where candidates often make a general pitch about their candidacy — are vastly different than debates, where they are asked pointed questions by a moderator and each other.
“It benefits everyone for the candidates to be asked tough questions about the office, and to give direct answers with specific plans, for their tenure in office,” said Shannon Warnock, campaign manager for Republican AG candidate Andy Taggart, who has sharply criticized Fitch for her debate absences.
One of Reeves’ Republican opponents, state Rep. Robert Foster, called him out for missing the first debate at Mississippi State University in April, saying Reeves was “back home on the porch.” Reeves initially said he wouldn’t make it because of the legislative session, though the session ultimately ended early.
Before the debate, Foster alleged Reeves’ absence caused MSU to spike an effort by WJTV to have the debate televised, because the school wanted to “protect” Reeves by refusing to allow his opponents free statewide exposure. The university denied the allegations.
It’s true that factors beyond simple scheduling conflicts often play a part when candidates — especially front-runners — opt to skip debates, political experts say. The leaders of a race must calculate if showing up could inadvertently injure their chances and boost their competitors in the polls.
“You give (your opponents) a stage and a microphone, and if you are the leader, then you naturally draw a crowd to that stage,” said Marty Wiseman, a former MSU political science professor and longtime state politics observer. “If you are certain of the gap you’ve got over the guy in second place, then there’s a case to be made for not creating that environment that gives them free publicity.”