KET debates not too popular with incumbents

Ryan Alessi
Ryan Alessi

On Monday, Kentucky Educational Television has scheduled its sixth debate for congressional candidates between the two contenders for the 3rd District in Louisville. And when Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth shows up, as he's expected to do, he will be the first incumbent member of Congress to participate in one on KET this year.

Aside from the 2nd Congressional District race, in which two state senators took part, the rest of the televised forums have consisted of journalists asking tough questions to a lonely challenger.

In some of these races, this televised debate might have been voters' only chance to see their candidates in action. Even if a challenger is running a limited campaign, the KET forum provides the opportunity for voters to at least assess the views and perspectives of the incumbent, who is essentially interviewing to keep his job.

But four incumbents, so far, have blown off this once-important measurement.

Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is slated to debate Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford on Oct. 27 on KET, already has said he has a scheduling conflict and won't attend.

Last week, the debate over not debating took an even more extreme turn as U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Republican from Hopkinsville who was first elected in 1994, successfully petitioned KET to allow him to submit a five minute and 40 second taped statement in lieu of appearing with Democratic challenger Heather Ryan.

"Now that we are in the worst economic crisis in generations, he is nowhere to be found," said Ryan, in her opening remarks before being peppered with questions for nearly 20 minutes. "Instead, he has issued a pre-programmed, pre-edited, pre-tested propaganda piece to be aired after this program."

KET has said it felt compelled to do as it did in order to comply with the Communications Act, which requires equal time for candidates.

Whitfield's spokeswoman Kristin Walker said the congressman submitted a similar video statement in 2004 instead of attending that KET debate. This time, Walker said, Whitfield chose to attend political rallies in Lyon and Hopkins counties.

It's unclear whether Whitfield's move will prompt incumbents from now on to skip the tough questions and go right to a pre-recorded, unchallenged closing statement the way Whitfield did.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from Somerset who passed on attending KET's 5th District debate Sept. 15, said he hadn't considered that approach but isn't a big fan of candidate forums anyway.

"Those things usually wind up being not very useful," he said. "I think candidates on both sides ought to be out amongst people getting first-hand information."

Central Kentucky's congressman, Democrat Ben Chandler, issued a statement saying he has been "honored to participate numerous times" in past KET debates. He said he didn't attend his scheduled KET forum on Sept. 29 with Republican Jon Larson because he was in Washington voting on the first draft of the $700 billion financial bailout bill.

McConnell, who is seeking his fifth term, said he hadn't given any thought to submitting a statement to KET for the Oct. 27 forum he won't be attending.

McConnell and Lunsford, however, are scheduled to tangle in an Oct. 23 debate hosted by the Paducah Sun. It won't be televised.

McConnell argues that he has given Lunsford more face time than former Democratic Sen. Walter "Dee" Huddleston gave him in 1984, a race McConnell narrowly won. McConnell and Lunsford asked each other questions for more than 40 minutes in September at a debate sponsored by the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

But McConnell declined to explain why he opted not to show up for the one statewide televised debate.

"Every one of the people who invited us to debate thought theirs was the most important imaginable," McConnell said.

Lunsford, meanwhile, has tried to use this as campaign issue. And a Democratic-sponsored chicken has popped up at some events to dog McConnell. Another chicken even starred in a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee online video about McConnell.

"He doesn't have the nerve or the guts to debate me," Lunsford said in Mount Sterling Saturday. "All I've been able to do is catch him at a couple of McConnell invitationals."