- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2014

A tea party-aligned super PAC plans to blast out a picture Friday of Sen. Thad Cochran, Mississippi Republican, on the side of a milk carton, as part of its ongoing campaign to get the veteran lawmaker to debate his challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, before their showdown in a runoff election June 24.

“Missing,” it reads beneath the image of Mr. Cochran in the attack, which is sponsored by the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund. “May answer to ‘Thad.’ Becomes frightened when the word ‘debate’ is uttered.”

The attack underscores how incumbents are coming under increasing fire from their rivals over their refusal to debate in the run-up to their primary elections.

It is a campaign strategy that challengers employ every election season in hopes of bolstering their stock — either by standing on the same stage as the incumbent, or, in the best-case scenario, forcing them to make a mistake that could haunt them at the ballot box.

But that same conventional wisdom means incumbents have little to gain and much to lose in a debate, and rarely do they jump at the opportunity.

That sums up this campaign season, where, with the notable exception of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who debated his rivals before easily winning his primary this week, most of the high-profile incumbents have taken a pass at the chance to face off with their rivals.

“You avoid a debate if you believe you are leading, or if you don’t want to give a lesser-known opponent equal footing with you,” said Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Still, the primary challengers in Mississippi, Kansas and Tennessee races are banking on the notion that this year could prove to be different, and the unwillingness to debate will anger grass-roots conservatives, who are fed up with the status quo in Washington.

“Most incumbents don’t like to debate their primary challengers because they don’t want to give them free publicity and the credibility of being on the same stage as the incumbent,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

“That stance often works well, but is problematic this year because voters see that as arrogance and an unwillingness to explain their votes. In a time of great contentiousness, it is better to confront and rebut critics rather than ignore them,” he said.

Following House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat this week to a poorly funded political newcomer, Milton Wolf, who is challenging Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas in that state’s Republican primary, warned that Mr. Roberts has a lot to lose by dodging debates.

“Pat Roberts owes Kansans debates on the issues before the August 5th primary,” Mr. Wolf said this week. “If he refuses to debate, then voters should send him the same resounding message at the polls on August 5th that was sent to the establishment in Virginia.”

In Tennessee, state Rep. Joe Carr’s campaign has run with a similar message, saying that Sen. Lamar Alexander should explain his record to voters.

“We’ve made it clear at every opportunity we’d look forward to debating Sen. Alexander and holding him accountable for his liberal record,” said Donald Rickard, Mr. Carr’s campaign manager. “Mississippi’s results have demonstrated voters won’t tolerate incumbents who try to hide, so we expect Sen. Alexander will be a willing debate partner and a formal challenge won’t be necessary.”

Meanwhile, the McDaniel camp and its allies have been trying to flush Mr. Cochran out and onto the debate stage for months now.

“If you are not up for a 60-minute or 90-minute debate, if you are not able to handle that kind of scrutiny and stress, should we really believe that if elected you will serve your full six-year term?” said Kevin Broughton, spokesman for the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, which has spent more than $700,000 on behalf of Mr. McDaniel.

Mr. Broughton pointed out that Mr. Cochran sent out Rep. Gregg Harper, who some say is favored by the establishment to succeed Mr. Cochran, to speak to his supporters at his election night party.

“Maybe Gregg Harper would accept a debate with Chris McDaniel since he seems to do all the senator’s heavy lifting,” he said.

On Thursday, the Club for Growth also released a new radio ad that highlights Mr. Cochran’s refusal to debate.

“In Washington, he votes with the liberals on spending, on judges, even on funding Obamacare,” the narrator in the ad says. “In Mississippi, he refuses to debate, hides from voters and throws mud. Thad Cochran is entitled to respect. He is not entitled to a lifetime seat in the Senate.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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