MORGANTOWN – The field has just been set for the governor’s race in West Virginia, and we already have a debate about debates.
Republican nominee Senator Bill Cole has challenged Democratic nominee Jim Justice to seven, spread across the state with different topics at each. Justice dismissed the proposal, saying it was “far more important” for him to go out and talk with voters.
We know how this works. The candidate who is behind in the polls — the MetroNews West Virginia Poll released last week has Justice up 52-34 over Cole — pushes for a bunch of debates, while the leader tries to avoid them.
However, the consultants’ well-worn strategy is secondary to the benefit to the voters of seeing the candidates go head-to-head multiple times.
Last year in Kentucky, Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Matt Bevin had six joint appearances between June and the November election, including three debates in October that were broadcast statewide. (Bevin won the election.)
This year’s presidential campaign will feature four debates — three with the presidential nominees and one with the candidates for vice-president. Two of the three presidential debates will be in October, just as more voters are beginning to focus in on the race.
The West Virginia Broadcasters Association is organizing a debate where both Justice and Cole likely will attend. Details are still being finalized. (Editor’s note: Kercheval will be the moderator of the WVBA debate.)
However, one is not enough. We should have at least three, one in September and two in October.
We have been intimately familiar with the last two Governors — Joe Manchin and Earl Ray Tomblin — who have occupied the office since 2005, but voters are still getting to know Justice and Cole.
Justice has never run for office before, so he has no public voting record. Cole has been in the state Senate for four years (two as Senate President), but he’s hardly a household name. The state’s energy-based economy is lagging and the state budget is getting tighter by the day; West Virginians deserve to know more about how Justice and Cole will address those issues.
Yes, they will spread their messages through paid media and on the campaign trail, but there’s no substitute for seeing them together on the same stage where voters can compare and contrast their ideas and opinions. For many voters, the issue is simply whether they are willing to trust a candidate.
The voter turnout for the Primary Election was 40 percent, higher than the last two primaries in presidential election years. Voters appear to be more energized this year, so the offshoot should be more information from the candidates, not less.
Justice, although shying away from committing to debates, still threw down a gauntlet during his Talkline appearance, saying “Asking me for more and more debates will be something that Bill Cole’s not going to be happy with.” Cole responded saying, “I’ve yet to hear one solution, one idea come from Jim.”
That sounds like we have the makings of a series of debates that would be instructive and entertaining. Anything less would be a disservice to the voters charged with making an informed decision in November.
Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.