Nebraska GOP gubernatorial nominee Jim Pillen speaks during the Nebraska Republican Party’s “unity rally” May 11, 2022, in Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
OMAHA — If University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen wins the governor’s race, he could become Nebraska’s first governor since at least the 1970s to be elected without facing his opponents on a debate stage.
Pillen declined another debate last week, one offered by NTV News of Axtell, Nebraska. His decision followed confirmation that the Nebraska State Fair would not be hosting its traditional governor’s debate this year.
This week, Pillen’s campaign told the Nebraska Examiner that the Republican nominee from Columbus will not participate in any debates. Pillen participated in candidate forums during the primary season, but he refused to debate his opponents during reporter-led debates then, as well.
“Our proven strategy remains the same: meeting Nebraskans face to face, one handshake at a time,” said Pillen’s campaign manager, Kenny Zoeller. “Jim is a livestock producer, not a politician, and he doesn’t do political theater.”
State Sen. Carol Blood, the Democrat facing Pillen in November, said she would agree to several debates if Pillen were willing. She said she is frustrated that one campaign gets to decide for all Nebraskans whether voters “get to see us in action or not.”
Blood worries voters could see a repeat of the GOP primary, in which the top two candidates spent more than $8 million apiece, without including millions in outside money. The TV ads from those top candidates drowned out others in the race.
Voters from all over the state deserve a chance to see how their candidates can answer questions that weren’t prepared by their handlers, Blood said. She questioned how voters can hold Pillen accountable without seeing him speak under pressure.
“When you are in charge of the executive branch, there are fires,” she said. “There is drought. There are often times when you have to make a decision in a small window of time, and voters want to know that you can think on your feet.”
Two former governors agreed with Blood about the importance of debates. Republican Dave Heineman and Democrat Ben Nelson said Tuesday that they learned a lot about themselves and other candidates during their gubernatorial debates.
Nelson credited his last 1990 debate against then-Gov. Kay Orr in Lincoln for helping him win. When he got a chance to ask her a question, he said, he was ready to ask about why someone promising to cut spending hadn’t done so sooner.
“I think it was the difference maker for the outcome of the election,” he said. “I got a chance to express my views of why I wanted to be governor and why I would be the better person to be governor … and you can’t do that with TV ads.”
Heineman debated several times during his 2006 GOP primary win over then-U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne and businessman Dave Nabity. Heineman also debated his Democratic opponent, businessman David Hahn, and said voters learn a lot from hearing candidates articulate and defend their stances.
“It’s important for the voters and the candidates,” he said. “To share with the voters, in particular, what is your vision for Nebraska. Voters also like to see how you’re going to respond when you’re on the spot and how you react to your opponent.”
The Nebraska Examiner looked back at governors and debates for the past 40 years — from Bob Kerrey through Pete Ricketts — and found only one instance when a general election debate wasn’t held. Heineman did not debate his general election opponent in 2010.
That year, Mark Lakers won the Democratic primary in May and then dropped out of the race. The party replaced him in July with lawyer Mike Meister, who struggled to gain traction. He called for debates, but Heineman declined.
“I don’t recall exactly what happened, other than there was a change,” Heineman said Tuesday. “Meister got in very late. There was just the unique circumstance where one guy won the primary and he withdrew.”
Dona-Gene Barton, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who studies voter behavior and what motivates it, said debates matter less to political outcomes than political junkies make them sound.
“Most people are just not even paying attention to it,” she said. “If they’re not watching it, it can’t have an effect to start with. And then the people who are watching, it tends to reinforce their beliefs.”
Debates tend to be most important during party primaries, she said, where partisans on the same team are trying to sort out which person they want. Smaller groups of people who are undecided are also influenced by debates, she said.
In states with lopsided voter registrations by political party, like Nebraska, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 258,000, debates involving the nominee of the dominant party are riskier for the people likely to win, she said.
“No wonder that the Republican Party candidate doesn’t want to engage in debates,” she said. “He’s got the edge. Why would he want to open up any doors for the media to shed any light on any dark corners that he doesn’t want revealed to voters?”
Richard Witmer, a political scientist at Creighton University, agreed. Debates tend to benefit lesser-known challengers by raising their name ID and profile, he said.
He said clear front-runners sometimes avoid debates because they’re winning. Republicans are also more likely to say no to debates today because their voters lack trust in reporters and traditional media outlets, he said.
On the other hand, he said, a candidate who is confident about winning has little to lose by debating.
Like Barton, Witmer said that most people tuning in to watch a debate already know who they like. They’re just watching for anything that makes them feel better about their choice, and perhaps for a gaffe so bad it makes them reconsider.
The biggest thing voters lose by not having debates, Witmer said, is the chance to see their candidates on TV and in print and online discussing the issues in a format that makes it easier to digest and share with their friends.
Giving voters a chance to see candidates square off makes debating worthwhile, Nelson and Heineman said. Both said they hope Pillen will change his mind.
Debating made them better governors, they said, better prepared to deal with press conferences and the grind of managing state government.
“I think it’s depriving the voters in Nebraska the opportunity to see the two side-by-side,” Nelson said.
Said Heineman: “One of them is going to have to govern, and you’re going to have to respond to voters and the news media all the time.”
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