MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — While Kay Ivey is not the first Alabama governor to refuse to debate an election challenger, most of her predecessors over the last two decades have been willing to face off with their opponents.
Ivey has so far refused to debate Democratic challenger Walt Maddox ahead of the November election.
Since 1998, three of the state’s four governors took on their challengers in debates. Governors Bob Riley, Don Siegelman and Fob James all debated their opponents at least once — and sometimes twice — in their respective re-election campaigns.
However, Ivey’s immediate predecessor, Gov. Robert Bentley refused to debate his Democratic opponent, Parker Griffith, in 2014. Bentley easily won re-election despite Griffith attempting to torment him with a giant inflatable duck to make the point he was “ducking” a debate.
Former Alabama congressman and political scientist Glen Browder said the conventional wisdom is that leading candidates don’t need to debate their opponents, “because there is just no benefit to be gained.”
“I’m sure her counselors are advising her that there is no reason to debate. Of course the challenger has to try to get the leader to debate because that will be the quickest route to possibly changing those numbers,” Browder said.
But Browder said there can be a conflict between sage political strategy and what’s “good for democracy.”
“It’s good for democracy to have debates. But when it comes down to it, candidates I think usually go by the conventional wisdom. If you are leading, you are not inclined to debate.”
Maddox, the mayor of Tuscaloosa, challenged Ivey to a series of debates.
“I do not believe that you should hide from the people who pay your salary,” Maddox said in a campaign speech Monday.
Maddox has said if Bentley had debated four years ago, voters might have learned about his plans for dealing with a financial crisis. Bentley proposed a tax increase in 2015. Months after his 2014 campaign touted that there were no new taxes in his first term.
Ivey said earlier this month that there’s no “need” for a debate because, “Alabamians know my record. They know what I stand for,” Ivey said.
Political scientist Bill Stewart said that while, “we tend to think not having a debate benefits only Ivey,” it could have risks for Maddox because it could put on spotlight on issues such as whether the Democrat supports President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Ivey is attempting to win the office in her own right after taking over last year. As the state’s lieutenant governor she took over when Bentley resigned in the fallout of a scandal centered on his relationship with a former aide.
As a candidate for secretary of state in 1986, Browder staged a “debate” with a photo of his opponent, who had refused an actual debate. Maddox has employed a similar strategy with a video series of a debate moderator asking questions to an empty podium.
Prior to 1998, gubernatorial debates were less common.
Stewart said the tradition of state level gubernatorial debates, “is still not extremely strong,” but he believes voters would benefit from hearing candidates “express their views on a variety of state and national issues.
Browder said many politicians followed former Gov. Jim Folsom, Sr’s. philosophy that, “you don’t help your opponent draw a crowd.”
But avoiding a debate isn’t necessarily a sure-fire path to victory. In 1994 Gov. Jim Folsom, Jr., who became governor when Gov. Guy Hunt was convicted on ethics charges, did not debate challenger Fob James. Folsom lost to James.