South Bend Tribune: Colwell: Why Jackie Walorski changed her position on debates

Readers ask why Congresswoman Jackie Walorski, the Republican incumbent in Indiana’s 2nd District, agreed to three televised debates with Democratic challenger Mel Hall. She refused televised debates with the prior two Democratic challengers and won big each time.

So, why change?

No mystery.

When refusing to debate became more damaging politically than any damage likely to occur in debates, Walorski wisely decided to “welcome the opportunity to discuss the issues that matter most to Hoosier families.”

She declined televised debate in campaigns against the prior two Democratic nominees, Joe Bock in 2014 and Lynn Coleman in 2016, because their challenges were not serious threats. The candidates were serious, of course, and tried hard. But they lacked the resources and organizations to come close.

Incumbents with leads — Democrats as well as Republicans — traditionally are advised by their political consultants to avoid debates that give lesser-known challengers enhanced name recognition and a chance to hammer at some telling issue or silly mistake and perhaps catch up.

Not debating certainly didn’t hurt Walorski last time. She won by a landslide, carrying nine of the 10 counties in the district and coming very close in traditionally Democratic St. Joseph County. Who cared that she didn’t debate? Not many voters, except for those who were not going to vote for her anyway.

This time it’s different.

Hall, though still trailing Walorski significantly in funding and still regarded as the underdog, has an organization in place for a first-class challenge. He proved to be an able campaigner and built momentum and name recognition in winning all the counties in the Democratic primary election.

He began harping in the primary campaign about Walorski not debating and not holding public meetings, claiming she wasn’t in touch with the district.

In challenging for three televised debates, Hall said “accountable leadership” calls for giving voters “the chance to hear directly from us.”

He pointed out that Walorski, back when she was a challenger against then-Rep. Joe Donnelly in 2010, called for “no less than six debates.”

Hall urged supporters to publicize his debate challenge on Facebook and Twitter. They did.

Walorski knew if she refused again to debate that Hall would for the rest of the campaign portray her as afraid and unwilling to let voters see her answering debate questions. And groups seeking to sponsor debates also would be unrelenting in pressure.

This time it could hurt.

So, Walorski quickly accepted the challenge for three televised debates.

Where and when they might be held now is being negotiated. Debate negotiations often are difficult, with disagreements over formats. Who will be on a panel asking questions? Or will there be a panel? Will candidates be able to ask questions of each other? Who will be the moderator? Will there be questions from the audience? Some debate negotiations even have involved differences over where candidates will stand and where cameras will be located.

Who will win?

The reaction probably will be what is found after most political debates. Supporters of Walorski will believe she won. Supporters of Hall will believe he won.

Undecided viewers or ones only leaning one way or the other could be swayed over differences on some issue — the economy, health care, immigration, trade, whether President Donald Trump should be fully supported or restrained.

Democrats who wanted Walorski to debate because of belief that she would self-destruct are likely to be disappointed. She didn’t decline to debate before out of fear of blundering to defeat. In her last televised debate, in 2012, in a close race with Brendan Mullen, she had no blunders, maintained her lead and won.

Walorski wasn’t ducking debates out of some debilitating fear. She didn’t bother with debates because she didn’t have to. Until now.

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