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Debate over debates: Will Orange County House candidates square off before November?

During an election season unlike any other, Orange County’s congressional candidates are debating if and when and how to debate.

Experts say who’s challenging who, and who’s accepting or ignoring the challenge, can signal how a race is going — even if research shows debate themselves don’t typically have much impact on the outcome of an election.

Nowhere is this debate over debates playing out more publicly than in the coastal 48th District.

Freshman Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda has invited Republican challenger Michelle Steel to “at least eight debates” before the Nov. 3 election. He included a list of requirements for the debate series that include in-person appearances by both candidates, multiple host cities in CA-48, and at least two debates that discuss the Vietnamese and Latinx communities.

Steel, so far, hasn’t said whether she will take the stage with Rouda.

The scenario is unusual for a few reasons, per the conventional wisdom.

“The general rule of debating is that if you’re the incumbent, and you’re ahead, you don’t want to debate,” said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University.

A major factor is that debates are remembered more often for mistakes than for victories. Take, for example, the backlash after George H.W. Bush checked his watch during a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton, making him appear distracted. Smoller said, from an incumbents’ point of view, it’s often not worth the risk of being haunted by such public gaffes.

Debates also can boost challengers by providing them with positive name recognition. In some races, just getting on the same stage with an elected member of congress can elevate the challenger. That’s why, Smoller said, “if you’re the challenger, and you’re behind, you want to debate.”

The fact that Rouda is pushing so hard for debates — first suggesting it during a Twitter exchange with Steel in May, online again in June and in a formal letter July 15 — suggests that he feels his race in the right-leaning district might be close and that he needs more exposure, said Scott Spitzer, political science professor at Cal State Fullerton.

“You don’t see Katie Porter calling for a debate,” Spitzer noted, with the freshman Democrat’s 45th District seat looking increasingly safe against Republican challenger Greg Raths.

Though there’s no public polling out on the CA-48 race, The Cook Political Report does rate the race as “lean Democratic.”

Rouda’s campaign brushed aside the suggestion that their call for debates reflects any internal concerns about the race.

“For decades, coastal Orange County was represented by a man who used his incumbency as an excuse to hide from constituents,” said Rouda’s campaign manager Alyssa Napuri, referencing veteran Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who Rouda defeated in 2018 to flip the district. Napuri said Rouda’s seat “does not excuse him, or any politician, from engaging with voters and answering tough questions.”

Steel’s campaign didn’t answer questions about whether she’ll debate Rouda. Instead, her campaign manager, Lance Trover, accused Rouda of being “more focused on crafting debate letters four months before an election instead of working on a bipartisan compromise in Washington to help the Orange County community.”

In the 49th District, which straddles southern Orange County and northern San Diego County, Republican challenger Brian Maryott’s campaign manager Patrick Snow said they’ve asked to debate Democratic Rep. Mike Levin starting in August.

Levin’s campaign manager Adam Berkowitz said they’re willing to debate with an independent panel that both campaigns support, and that they agreed to meet in early October. But Berkowitz said they’ve also been discussing how to do so in a format that’s safe for everyone given the coronavirus pandemic.

But even the definition of “safe” is being debated. Maryott’s campaign is back to knocking on doors, though Snow said campaign workers wear masks, do temperature checks, and take other steps to keep everyone safe. Levin’s team is so far sticking with virtual outreach and events.

Neither freshman Democratic Rep. Gil Cisneros nor Republican challenger Young Kim has publicly called for a debate in the tight race for the 39th District, which includes portions of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. Cisneros’ campaign manager Joe Farrell said they’re open to the idea but haven’t received invites from host organizations — he suspects because of logistical challenges due to the coronavirus.

If candidates can navigate those challenges, Spitzer said debates might be more impactful this election than ever by connecting candidates with large audiences of voters online while traditional campaign activities are limited.

“It might be the only thing we see,” he said.

Source: Orange County Register

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