Matt Lewis

Newt’s fault?: Desperate senate candidates demand more debates

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Matt K. Lewis
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      Matt K. Lewis

      Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor to The Daily Caller, and a contributing editor for The Week. He is a respected commentator on politics and cultural issues, and has been cited by major publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Matt is from Myersville, MD and currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Matt K. Lewis on Twitter <a>@mattklewis</a>.

Taking a page from Newt Gingrich’s wildly successful campaign strategy, Nebraska senate hopeful Bob Kerrey is challenging his Republican opponent Deb Fischer to seven debates between now and November.

This, of course, is what you do if you’re the underdog and you think winning will require some sort of a “game change” event (Kerrey wasn’t so keen on granting debates when he was the incumbent).

This story is repeating itself in Utah’s Republican primary, where Dan Liljenquist is upset that Sen. Orrin Hatch won’t grant him more debates.

In a new TV ad, Liljenquist points out that: “In 1976, [Hatch] challenged his primary opponent to eight debates.” This is true, but that was before Hatch was the incumbent. As Reagan’s old aide Lyn Nofziger advised, “[I]t is almost always a mistake for an incumbent to debate unless he thinks he’s going to lose [the election].”

Like Kerrey, Liljenquist has decided to complain about the lack of debates. Unlike Kerrey, however, Liljenquist is reportedly spending $125,000 in order to do so publicly.

Pro tip: If you’re going to pay to run a TV ad, make sure the message has to do with the voters. The average person doesn’t care that the incumbent has changed his mind about how many debates are appropriate, nor does he care that you’re being dissed — unless he connects the dots and sees why that should matter to him.

My guess is that most politicians who complain about having their debate overtures rebuffed are more concerned that it is a personal affront to them, than that it is an insult to the voters. And voters can usually pick up on that. (Message to politicians: It can’t just be about you.)

Of course, candidates — especially those who fear they might actually lose — don’t often behave rationally. They sometimes do things to get even — not to get ahead. This is more understandable coming from a newcomer like Liljenquist. Kerrey’s desperate act, however, makes less sense. He knows the game. A decade ago, it went to his advantage. Today, such behavior has come home to roost.