Democrat Shenna Bellows is pressing Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to agree to 10 debates ahead of the November election.
In a letter sent Thursday to her opponent’s campaign, Bellows pointed out that Collins and former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, D-District 1, held 10 debates during the 2008 Senate campaign. Bellows said she “admired” that hearty debate schedule and added that she believes Maine voters “want and deserve full engagement from their elected officials and candidates.”
“A campaign without that direct contact and without those questions being answered would be unworthy of the people we both hope to serve,” Bellows wrote. “You and I have different ideas about Social Security reform, student loans, marijuana legalization, the scope of our national security state and many other issues important to people of Maine. Voters should have multiple opportunities to hear our ideas and decide for themselves who better represents their values and their interests.”
In a response, Collins’ campaign did not commit to a specific number of debates but said that debates “will certainly play a central role” in the campaign. Campaign spokesman Lance Dutson noted that any debates will have to be set up around the Senate schedule.
“Senator Collins has never missed a roll call vote and takes that responsibility very seriously,” Dutson wrote. “We believe it is important that the debates be spread geographically throughout the state. It is also important to balance the debate schedule with the time that both candidates will need for traditional campaigning and direct voter contact.”
A recent poll conducted for the Portland Press Herald had Collins leading Bellows 72 percent to 17 percent, with 10 percent undecided.
The number of debates can, itself, incite a robust debate among competing campaigns in today’s electoral politics.
Strong debaters, not surprisingly, push for more chances to show off their skills in front of an audience. Challengers often press for more opportunities to debate incumbents so that they can highlight differences and directly confront their opponent on key issues they hope will resonate with voters. Debates are also free advertising for lesser-funded candidates,which is especially valuable post-Labor Day when voters are paying closer attention to politics but paid television advertising can quickly deplete campaign coffers.
Some incumbents’ campaign prefer to play it safe and insist on a limited number of debates, although that is not always the case in Maine or elsewhere, as evidenced by the 10 debates during the 2008 Senate race. But incumbent members of Congress typically enter a campaign with hefty advantages over their challengers both in terms of voter recognition and fundraising ability.
Bellows is certainly no stranger to public debates, having served as the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine for eight years and helping to lead the two referendum campaigns to legalize same-sex marriage. Of course, Collins is an 18-year veteran of the U.S. Senate — often described as “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” — who has frequently found herself at the center of heated policy debates because of her status as a moderate Republican in hyper-partisan Washington. Collins has also not shied away from grilling high-ranking officials during Senate committee hearings.
The debate schedule is likely to become an issue in Maine’s hotly contested gubernatorial race as well. Independent Eliot Cutler, who currently trails in third behind Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, has been pushing most aggressively as he called for at least one policy debate in each of Maine’s 16 counties.