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Political Scientists Say Maine Candidates Could Face Consequences For Skipping Debates

Sara Gideon and Eric Brakey.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon skipped a televised primary debate Monday night, and Republican U.S. House candidate Eric Brakey says he will also pass on a broadcast debate Wednesday. Some political science scholars say that’s a risk for campaigns, as voters want to see candidates debate the issues.

Both campaigns say they do plan to participate in other debates and forums before the July 14 primary. And that’s wise, says Dan Shea, who chairs the government department at Colby College. Shea says he understands why some front-runners can be reluctant to face off against opponents, because while debates in primaries can help solidify their base of support, there is also pressure to expand that base for the general election.

“The double-edged sword that on one hand, you want to turn out your base, and debates during primaries can do that, but on the other hand, you need to win over persuadable, even moderate voters,” he says.

And Shea says the open nature of a debate may also allow opponents to push the leading candidate to take positions that may hurt them in the fall. But refusing to take part in debates, he says, carries a risk of upsetting voters. And University of Southern Maine political science professor Ron Schmidt says this is a most unusual election year.

“Generally speaking, political scientists will tell you, especially at this point, no one is really paying attention, but this year and in most other things it is different. They are paying attention to what candidates are doing and they have some big expectations,” he says.

Other political scientists interviewed for this story say that skipping some primary debates may not be an issue with most voters, but refusing to take part in debates and forums in the fall could have consequences.

Originally published 5:09 p.m. Wednesday, June 10, 2020.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.