For Senate race front-runners, there is no debate

For Senate race front-runners, there is no debate
U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, left, and Lincoln City Councilwoman Jane Raybould. The two front-runners in the race for U.S. Senate have said scheduling problems will prevent them from debating their primary opponents.

That sound from U.S. Senate front-runners debating their opponents before Nebraska’s May 15 primary election? Silence.

Last-minute efforts by separate groups to organize at least a single debate for each party’s candidates in the 2018 Senate primary race have fallen flat.

Nebraska’s front-runners, U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Nebraska, and Lincoln City Councilwoman Jane Raybould, a Democrat, blame scheduling difficulties.

Their opponents say it’s hard to see what they’re doing as anything but running out the clock because multiple dates were offered.

Favorites such as Fischer and Raybould often choose not to debate this close to primary elections because campaign staff see little to gain. Early voting is already underway.

Fischer and Raybould hold fundraising advantages in the hundreds of thousands of dollars over their primary opponents. They are likely to win.

So the risk is real in debating unknown and little-known candidates, said Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Debates offer chances to boost challengers’ credibility, he said.

But the choice not to debate is inconsiderate to voters, Landow said, many of whom are missing what might be the only chance to hear from their choices.

“It’s a shame,” Landow said. “It’s becoming less likely that (front-runners) will engage. So many of these campaigns are run by outside political consultants that treat it like a business rather than a democratic exercise.”

Democratic challengers of Raybould — small-business man Chris Janicek of Omaha, former Keith County Attorney Frank Svoboda and retired teacher and perennial candidate Larry Marvin of Fremont — have agreed to debate without Raybould over lunch Wednesday at the Omaha Press Club, at the invite of the League of Women Voters.

The league tried to accommodate Raybould’s request for other dates, but none worked for all involved.

“We do all we can to work with candidates to make this work, but they have to meet us halfway,” said Ann Chalson, the group’s president. “We made every effort to work with them, but at some point we had to decide to move on and set a date.”

Three of Fischer’s four Republican challengers — Lincoln tech entrepreneur Todd Watson, Lincoln writer Dennis Macek and retired Omaha math professor Jack Heidel — had agreed to debate any time that would work this week for Fischer at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

They’re now debating Wednesday evening at Bellevue University, in an event organized by a voter who says he did so on behalf of grass-roots voters.

The senator’s campaign declined to participate in Kearney or Bellevue, saying the final days of her campaign had already been scheduled. The other GOP candidate, Jeffrey Lynn Stein of Omaha, could not be reached, organizers said.

Janicek, one of the Democrats in the race, said he hoped to help Nebraskans to pick the best candidate to defeat Fischer in the fall, and that holding a debate or forum would give voters a choice. Watson called the decisions not to participate by both front-runners “un-American.”

This “hide-the-ball” strategy by well-funded candidates is part of what has frustrated voters, Watson said, growing fissures within both parties and, for an increasing number of voters, turning them toward party independence.

“Nebraskans deserve to have answers on key policy issues,” Watson said. “We are about freedom of speech and the right to redress grievances. You expect these people to defend the Constitution?”

The Fischer and Raybould camps deny that they are dodging debates at all, saying only that the events were organized too late to fit in. So the debate about debates continues.