This year’s elections for major statewide offices will apparently have fewer televised debates than any in recent memory.
One live, statewide-broadcast debate between Gov. Pat McCrory and Attorney General Roy Cooper is scheduled for Tuesday, and another between U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and former state Rep. Deborah Ross will take place Thursday.
Both are sponsored by the N.C. Association of Broadcasters and will be broadcast from the studios of UNC-TV in Research Triangle Park. They are the only events in a regulated debate format, with a moderator and a structured time for answers and responses, scheduled so far.
That’s the outcome of months of negotiations among the campaigns, during which they pushed to outdo one another by calling for more face-offs and disagreeing on the venues and formats.
The debates will give voters a chance to size up the candidates beyond the polished version presented in campaign advertisements. David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, says these debates could also play an important role in reaching undecided voters.
“The real challenge for the debates is to generate a large audience, given that the second presidential debate is Sunday and many of the state’s voters are not following the governor’s race or the Senate race as closely,” McLennan said. “The media coverage of the debates may have as much, if not more, importance than the debates themselves because of voters’ preoccupation with the presidential campaign.”
The 2014 debates between U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis broadcast from UNC-TV drew about 600,000 viewers the first time and more than 800,000 the second time. A third debate in Wilmington wasn’t carried statewide.
While the Wilmington debate included Libertarian Senate candidate Sean Haugh, he won’t be allowed to participate in this year’s Senate debate. Nor was the Libertarian candidate for governor, Lon Cecil, invited.
Debate negotiations complicated
Wrangling over every aspect of a potential debate is complicated and often contentious. In that Hagan-Tillis matchup, Tillis wanted to debate Hagan a fourth time on Time Warner Cable News, but the incumbent declined and Tillis appeared on the show next to an empty chair. His campaign accused Hagan of dodging the debate.
In the 2012 gubernatorial election, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton challenged McCrory to eight debates. McCrory’s campaign scoffed at that number and said McCrory “won’t be showing up for Mr. Dalton’s trumped up, dream schedule of debates on his terms.”
McCrory and Dalton ended up holding three debates together, two hosted by the Association of Broadcasters and one by WRAL. Dalton appeared alone at an NAACP forum that the McCrory campaign declined to attend.
This year, McCrory’s campaign pushed for at least six debates, while Cooper’s team said in April that it would agree to three debates, including one sponsored by WRAL-TV that McCrory hadn’t agreed to.
A number of TV stations across the state invited the candidates to debate. Fox 8 WGHP in Greensboro was among them, and while McCrory agreed to participate, Cooper, Ross and Burr did not accept the invitation.
In June and again in August, Ross called on the Burr campaign to agree to a total of four debates, although she did not identify her preferred venues.
The Burr campaign decided early on that the senator would only agree to one debate, due in part to his decision not to campaign heavily until Congress adjourned this month.
North Carolina’s role as a battleground state has helped draw some national media star power to the debates this week.
Chuck Todd, host of Meet The Press on NBC, will serve as moderator for the governor debate. Jonathan Carl, the White House correspondent for ABC News, will moderate the Senate debate.
The Association of Broadcasters faced criticism for scheduling the gubernatorial debate on Yom Kippur, a day that many Jewish people spend attending religious services.
“The North Carolina Association of Broadcasters apologizes for holding the October 11 Gubernatorial Debate on the eve (Kol Nidre) of Yom Kippur,” the association said in a statement on its website. “While we inadvertently did that, there are many factors that go into a debate and getting a date for all to agree on was very difficult.”
The association said the debate will be broadcast again later and available for streaming on TV stations’ websites.
What it means for candidates
McLennan said all of the candidates have to hit key marks:
▪ “Gov. McCrory needs to change the campaign’s narrative away from HB2 and its negative impact on the state’s economy and be able to talk affirmatively about job creation and the increased tax revenues that have produced a surplus.”
▪ “Attorney General Cooper needs to talk about the fact that not all North Carolinians have felt the economic recovery and that four more years of McCrory’s leadership would not help those left behind.”
▪ “Richard Burr needs to make the campaign about more than Deborah Ross’ time as ACLU executive director and about sex offender registries. He needs an affirmative message about his leadership of the Senate Intelligence Committee in dangerous times. He needs to discuss his accomplishments in the Senate.”
▪ “Deborah Ross is not well-known to many voters. Therefore, she needs to highlight her record as a legislator and talk about her vision for what she would do as a U.S. senator.”
How to watch
The McCrory-Cooper debate will air at 7 p.m. Tuesday on UNC-TV, WRAL, WRAZ Fox 50, CBS North Carolina WNCN and ABC11 WTVD.
The Senate debate will air at 7 p.m. Thursday on UNC-TV, WRAL, WRAZ Fox 50 and ABC11 WTVD.