Commentary: Chabot, Pureval Debate About Having Debates

Aug 22, 2018

Some people find this hard to believe, but the race in Ohio's 1st Congressional District between Democratic challenger Aftab Pureval and Republican incumbent Steve Chabot really is one of the most competitive House races in the country.

So will the good people of OH-1 – made up of most of western Hamilton County and all of Warren County – be treated to a televised or livestreamed debate or debates between the two combatants?

Well, both sides say so, but we just don't know yet.

We are trapped in the perennial Twilight Zone of The Debate Over Debates, an odd phenomenon that occurs often in political campaigns where both sides say they want debates but can't agree on where, when and how.

How could we not, in a race like this, have two candidates for such a powerful position not stand up on their hind legs and discuss the issues?  

This is one of the most important House races in the country, is it not?

Just ask the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in Washington, which has put OH-1 on its "Red to Blue" list of targeted districts in their struggle to regain control of the House.

Or many of the analysts and pundits, including Sabato's Crystal ball at the University of Virginia's Center for politics, which, weeks ago, moved OH-1 from "Leans Republican" to "Toss-up."

For the longest time, the attention of the political world in Washington was focused on OH-12, the central Ohio district where Republican Troy Balderson, President Trump's candidate, appears to be eking out an itsy-bitsy win over Democrat Danny O'Connor of Franklin County.

Kyle Kondik, the political analyst and native Ohioan who is managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, told WVXU that OH-1 is more favorable district for Democrats, "at least on paper."  

For one thing, Donald Trump did not do as well in OH-1 in the 2016 election as he did in OH-12. He won OH-12 by 11.5 percentage points while he won OH-1 with about 6.5 percentage points.

"So both districts are right of center, but OH-1 a little less so,'' Kondik said.

One difference between the two districts is that OH-12 is "lily-white,'' Kondik said, while OH-1 is more diverse – only about 70 non-Hispanic white, with a sizeable African-American population that equals about one out of every five voters.

OH-1 is a good target for Democrats, but still an uphill battle.

"I do think that of the 12 GOP-held districts in the state, this is the best Democratic target, but it's still a district that is drawn to elect a Republican," Kondik said.

But the Democrat's campaign believes that if it can win in Hamilton County and appeal to enough of the Republican-leaning, college-educated voters who have been populating places like Deerfield Township and Mason in recent years, Pureval can pull this off.

But it would help immensely if the young, energetic Democrat could get on television with the considerably older Republican in a debate and make the case that Chabot has spent 22 years in Congress with nothing to show for it.

Credit John Minchillo / AP

That's the Pureval plan, anyway.

Little wonder, then, that the Pureval campaign has accepted all four televised and/or livestreamed debates that would be hosted by local news outlets.

And it may explain why, as of now, the Chabot campaign hasn't accepted any of them – although Chabot campaign spokesman Cody Rizzuto told WVXU that "I can absolutely guarantee you, 100 percent, that there will be debates."

So far, the two campaigns have discussed four media-sponsored debates, including one by WLWT (Channel 5), WKRC Local 12 and two co-sponsored by the Enquirer and Fox 19, along with the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and the University of Cincinnati. Of the two sponsored by the Enquirer, Fox 19 and their partners, one would be a traditional televised debate and the other would be a "town hall" style affair, complete with "regular" voters asking the questions.

Representatives of the two campaigns have met to discuss whether to debate and how often. And that has been, so far, a fairly useless exercise.

While the Chabot campaign has said it will agree to one or more debates but hasn't said which ones, it is opposed to four debates.

"Four is too many,'' Rizzuto told WVXU. "They don't even have that many in a presidential race."

"They say they want to debate, but they haven't responded to say they will do all four, or any, for that matter,'' said Sarah Topy, Pureval's campaign manager.

Right now, the Pureval campaign's position is to accept all four debates or we have nothing to talk about.  The Chabot campaign said it is not going to do that.

In the end, though, does it matter if there are debates?

Maybe.

Kondik said he thinks debates "are only important in the sense that something might happen in them that could be very bad one for candidate or the other."

"Realistically, one would not expect many people to watch, listen in to, or attend such a debate and those who do attend or watch are more involved in politics and probably are not persuadable," Kondik said.

The most persuadable people, Kondik said, are usually those who are paying the least attention.

"But something that happens at a debate that makes news could have an effect on the race, and if there are no debates, there's no chance to make news,'' Kondik said.

Right now, in the Chabot-Pureval "negotiations," all we have is a merry mix-up. I've been doing this politics reporting business for 44 years now and we have been through countless rounds of these debates over debates.

In other words, I am Bill Murray and it's Groundhog Day.

via GIPHY

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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