Jesse Burns says organized political debates are starting to disappear in New Jersey.
“This isn’t the way democracy is supposed to work. Voters should be hearing the positions of the candidates,” said Burns, executive director of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of New Jersey.
She said chapter leaders are reporting an alarming decline in the number of legislative and county government candidates who are willing to participate in league-sponsored debates that typically are held this month, as Election Day approaches. Across New Jersey, there are 33 active league chapters.
Some candidates say they have “scheduling conflicts,” others just don’t respond to requests to appear, while still others “straight out refuse,” Burns said. She has been with the league 10 years.
For the first time in more than a decade, the league’s Burlington County chapter had to cancel the three debates that it usually sponsors. Voters will not have the opportunity to hear an exchange between the candidates who are running for legislative seats in Districts 7 and 8, and for the county Freeholder Board. In each district, there is one open seat for the state Senate and two seats for the Assembly. The Freeholder Board has two seats up for grabs.
“The decision was not taken lightly,” said Barbara Kutscher, the chapter’s debate coordinator. She said communications broke down after the two major parties agreed to participate and had selected dates, but before they had forwarded all the paperwork the league requires. Josh Foote, the Republican campaign manager for the party’s district and freeholder candidates, stopped responding during a critical five-day period when final arrangements for a venue and moderator had to be made, she said.
“There was radio silence. … I began to send more and more frantic emails and voicemails,” Kutscher said, adding that she sent two emails and left one voicemail message before calling Foote again to tell him that he needed to contact her by noon Oct. 11. That return call never came, and the league canceled the debates that night, she said.
Foote did not respond to calls seeking an interview. His reply was an emailed quote that was released by Chris Russell, the county GOP party’s longtime political consultant, after the the league’s vote. “We had agreed to dates, and our candidates were certainly ready and willing to participate. The abrupt cancellation yesterday was a surprise,” he said.
Kutscher said she had been asking Foote to confirm, verbally or in writing, that the Republican candidates would participate in the debates and would sign agreements saying they would abide by the league’s debate rules. The Democrats had already given her a verbal confirmation, she said.
None of the Republican candidates who would have participated in the three canceled debates returned calls seeking comment. Some of their staff referred calls to Foote.
Several other league chapters in New Jersey also had debates go by the wayside this year, including the debates for legislative candidates in Cape May and Princeton, Burns said. “That’s four legislative districts, and these are big, important races for voters,” she said.
“One reason is that maybe incumbents don’t feel the need to debate because they feel they’re in a safe district. … They’re not hustling as much to get their positions out there. Part of it might be candidates rely on the party faithful to vote a straight party ticket,” Burns said.
In other counties, such as Camden and Gloucester, there aren’t enough volunteers to organize debates, she said. There will be no debates for legislative and county races. Gloucester County has no league chapter.
Suzanne Almeida, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, said she too sees a pattern where “it’s becoming more difficult to get candidates to commit to debates, particularly contentious races.”
Last year, when the state’s legislative elections were held, some debates had to be canceled because candidates opted out, she said. “We have so many safe districts that it becomes a disincentive for people to want to get out there and debate. … There’s a worry that putting themselves out there really opens them to attacks, and there is risk because they don’t have full control over the situation. … It’s not just a stump speech.”
But this year, the only statewide races being held in Pennsylvania are for judicial positions. Those nontraditional candidates fully commit to debates, she said.
What’s happening in New Jersey is part of a tried and true strategy used by incumbents, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
These candidates have built-in name recognition from years in office, but their challengers are less fortunate. Agreeing to a debate presents their opponents with a chance to make headlines and get their name in voters’ minds, Murray said.
Another reason candidates already in office may skip out on the back-and-forth? It’s easy to slip up in an argument, Murray says. Mistakes can be used in an attack ad or replayed in the news.
“It’s not great for democracy, but it’s good for the incumbent,” Murray said.
Turnout for debates varies, Murray said, but the crowd typically consists of policy wonks and those highly engaged in politics who have already picked a side.
Rather than engage in an hour-long wrangle, it’s better for candidates in small races to use direct voter-contact strategies: making phone calls and knocking on doors. Media coverage, Twitter, and Facebook are less important, Murray said.
“If you’re ahead,” he said, “this is a straightforward strategy.”
In New Jersey, the majority of legislative candidates and many candidates for freeholder boards, municipal races, and school board positions engage in debates sponsored by the league. Hundreds of these events have been scheduled during October and some even go into early November, Burns said.
On Oct. 10, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey also cosponsored a gubernatorial debate between Democrat Phil Murphy and Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. They are running to replace Gov. Christie, whose term ends this year.
To help voters make an informed choice, the league also offers Vote411.org, a website that includes a Q&A with legislative candidates that asks them to outline their proposals for lowering taxes, addressing problems with the pension system, meeting energy needs, protecting the environment, and promoting job growth.
But again, participation is spotty.
In Districts 7 and 8, which cover a large portion of South Jersey between the Delaware River and the Jersey Shore, nine of the Republicans and Democrats running for 12 open seats for Senate and Assembly did not submit answers for the website.
Only three legislative candidates responded: Democrats George Youngkin, Joanne Schwartz, and Carol Murphy, all newcomers. Youngkin and Schwartz are seeking seats in the Eighth District and Murphy is a Seventh District candidate.
“Candidates need to know that they need to do more than shake hands at a diner,” Burns said. “This is frustrating for the league and for voters. How else will voters know where the candidates stand?”
Staff writer Avalon Zoppo contributed to this article.