The League of Women Voters of Lexington has canceled more than half of the candidate forums it planned for early October because one person in each race — usually the incumbent — would not participate.
“I hope this is not a trend,” Cindy Heine, the group’s forum chairwoman, said Tuesday. “We have traditionally had very good participation in the past. These forums are an excellent chance for voters to learn more about the candidates and for candidates to get their messages out without having to spend anything more than an hour of their time.”
The League says those who declined to appear were U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington; Daniel Fister of Versailles, Republican nominee for Kentucky House District 56; Lexington-Fayette Urban County Councilwoman Shevawn Akers, District 2; and Urban County Councilman Russ Hensley, District 12. State Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, and Ken Kearns of Lexington, Republican nominee for state House District 79, did not respond.
In each of those races, the opponents agreed to appear, Heine said. But the League chose not to go ahead with only one participant, she said. That leaves five candidate forums scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 1 and 2 at the Lexington Public Library’s downtown Farish Theatre. The forums — which include questions from the audience — are free and open to the public and will be rebroadcast on the library’s cable channel 20.
Nancy Jo Kemper of Lexington, Barr’s Democratic opponent, was one of the challengers left hanging. She wonders if she’ll get a chance to debate Barr in front of an audience before the Nov. 8 election, said her campaign manager, Sellus Wilder.
“This is something we’ve been running into over and over,” Wilder said. “Congressman Barr won’t participate in debates with us and he won’t say why. It’s this, it’s the Frankfort Chamber of Commerce candidate forum, it’s elsewhere.”
“We’re disappointed on a number of levels. Obviously, we want Nancy Jo to debate issues with him. But just from a democratic viewpoint, it’s important for people seeking office to participate in these sorts of forums so that voters can see them and get their questions in front of them,” he said.
Barr has “a family commitment” on the day of the League of Women Voters debate, spokesman Rick VanMeter said. Barr has committed to two appearances with Kemper in the fall, a televised KET discussion on Oct. 24 and a Clark County forum three days after that, VanMeter said.
Stephen Voss, a University of Kentucky political scientist, said voters seldom punish incumbents for refusing to appear on stage with their challengers. Because of that, incumbents often decide a debate is not worth the risk, Voss said.
“Debates can be dangerous because they give you a chance to slip up and make a mistake. And these days, it’s really easy for a mistake to be spread around — not just through the traditional methods, like newspapers, but digitally, through video and social media, to a much larger audience than ever would have watched the debate,” Voss said.
Relatively few voters follow debates with an open mind anymore, he said. Most people interested enough to watch are closely aligned with one political party and “would just want to cheer on their candidate,” he said.
“As voters become more polarized, as the public has become largely divided between unshakeable Democrats and unshakeable Republicans, there is less place for the remaining swing voters to get neutral information to help them make up their minds before an election,” Voss said. “Any objective middle-of-the-road institution is struggling to reach anyone right now. People want information sources that have a glaring, partisan bias — an echo chamber that tells them what they want to hear.”
Kentucky Educational Television scrapped its long-running candidate debates in 2010, in part because incumbent politicians were refusing to face their challengers before a panel of questioning journalists.
The problem reached its zenith in 2008 when U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, refused to debate his Democratic opponent. Hours before the event, Whitfield demanded that KET air an unedited videotaped statement that his campaign prepared. KET complied, leaving Whitfield's challenger to stand alone and be grilled about foreign policy and the economy, followed by the congressman's campaign tape.
In place of the debates, KET now invites candidates to appear, if they wish, on its weekly “Kentucky Tonight” public-affairs show to discuss issues with host Bill Goodman.
Apart from the candidate forums, the League of Women Voters has ambitions to reach a larger digital audience, Heine said. The group is preparing an online voters guide to show where people running for local, state and federal office stand on various issues, she said.
“We’re hoping the candidates will respond,” she said.
The League of Women Voters candidate forums will be held in the Farish Theatre at the Lexington Public Library, 140 W. Main St.
10:15 a.m. - 10:45 a.m. Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council, District 4: Councilwoman Susan Lamb and Barry Saturday
1:00 p.m. - 1:30 p.m. Kentucky House District 75: Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, and Gary McCollum
1:30 p.m. - 2:00 p.m. Kentucky Supreme Court, District 5: Glenn Acree and Larry VanMeter
2:15 p.m. - 2:45 p.m. Fayette County School Board, District 1: Melissa Bacon and Samantha Rodarte
3:00 p.m. - 3:30 p.m. Fayette County School Board, District 5: Daryl K. Love and Sharon Mofield-Boswell