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It’s Politics 101

August 19, 2018

It’s as much of a political tradition as shaking hands and kissing babies: the debate over debates.

The topic came up for, well, debate, in recent weeks in Nebraska’s gubernatorial race. Gov. Pete Ricketts — the Republican incumbent — first announced that he would participate in three specific events that could serve as debates, or joint appearances, with his Democratic challenger, Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha.

But Sen. Krist pushed back, arguing for five televised debates with the governor.

“It is beneath the dignity of the office of governor for Pete Ricketts to deny Nebraskans the opportunity to see and hear our ideas of how we would serve if elected,” Krist said. “He should not be allowed to hide from his record.”

For those who don’t follow election-related politics closely — or for those who don’t really care — a bit of background:

The debate on debates can occur in almost any kind of political race but certainly in statewide contests.

It most often occurs when there is an incumbent of either political party who happens to have a significant advantage in terms of name recognition, fundraising and other factors.

Debates are seen as an opportunity for the challenger in the race to overcome some of those disadvantages. If they do well in a debate, it adds to the candidate’s stature and can lead to increases in fundraising. For a challenger with the odds against him or her, there’s not much to lose by pushing for as many debates as possible, especially if they receive lots of media attention.

For the incumbent, it’s a different story.

Yes, there is a recognition of the need to participate in some debates or joint appearances.

To not do so could make it appear as if the incumbent is ducking the issues or leery of engaging in debate.

But there is very little upside to agreeing to a host of debates. They pose inherent possible advantages for challengers, including the possibility of having the incumbent say something he or she later wishes hadn’t been uttered.

Besides, if an incumbent is worth his or her salt as a politician, there have been plenty of public appearances previously and will continue to be during a re-election campaign that allow voters to hear for themselves about an incumbent’s stances on issues.

So, there’s no real right or wrong here. It’s part of the political game that is played frequently and with varying degrees of success. It’s Politics 101.

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