Malvern Daily Record
At least Rutledge and her opponents showed up
Give credit to Attorney General Leslie Rutledge where credit is due: She showed up.
Rutledge participated in one of a series of debates held April 21 by the Arkansas Press Association for four of the state’s contested constitutional offices. Hers, for lieutenant governor, was the most meaningful of the debates because she, the frontrunner, was there.
Rutledge is the frontrunner because of her statewide office and name recognition, her “Rutledge Report” and other public service announcements, and her overwhelming fundraising advantage stemming from her aborted run for governor.
A candidate in her position might find a reason to skip the lieutenant governor debate, which was not broadcast.
Two of the other clear frontrunners skipped their debates: Sarah Huckabee Sanders in the governor’s race and Lt. Governor Tim Griffin in the attorney general’s race. Sanders, the overwhelming favorite, is not making herself available to reporters much, so it’s not surprising she wouldn’t appear in a room full of them. She’s raised more than $14 million, so she doesn’t need any media coverage. Sen. John Boozman also recently said he would not debate his three Republican primary opponents.
In the 2020 elections,
Sen. Tom Cotton skipped the debates sponsored by Arkansas PBS. These are tame, controlled affairs where the candidates don’t question each other, but Cotton didn’t think it was worth his time and/or worth the risk. His Libertarian opponent, Ricky Harrington, had the stage to himself. Harrington is running for governor this year.
But there was Rutledge sitting shoulder to shoulder with her seven opponents. The Republicans are Surgeon General Greg Bledsoe; former Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb; state Sen. Jason Rapert, R-conway; Washington County Judge Joseph Wood; and attorney Chris Bequette. The non-republicans are Democrat Kelly Krout and Libertarian Frank Gilbert.
The eight are vying for an office that does little. The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate when it’s in session and becomes governor when the elected governor dies, leaves office or can’t serve. That’s pretty much it.
These days, campaigns are based largely on party labels, ads, and endorsements by ideological interest groups and politicians. They’re highly scripted affairs where candidates relentlessly try to stay on message.
In a debate, it’s just them on a stage, where they might go off message. They might say something embarrassing. They might say what they really think and get in trouble with their base or with what few undecided voters are left.
Debates are political theater, and they probably don’t tell us much about how a candidate would actually govern. But they do give candidates a chance to state their case why they should be elected in a less scripted environment. They also let them say why an opponent shouldn’t be elected, and to do it like a real man or real woman: face to face instead of hiding behind an anonymous narrator in a 30-second attack ad funded by other people.
It’s unclear what debates will look like in the future. Recently, the Republican National Committee voted to withdraw from the Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan entity that organizes the ones featuring Republicans and Democrats (and Ross Perot in 1992). The RNC says the CPD is biased.
We’re a long way from the fall of 2024, so who knows what will happen between now and then. Regardless, it’s an unfortunate decision because it further chips away trust in our elections.
And that trust has been eroded a lot lately. Between denying election results, claiming the whole system is rigged, and impeaching presidents regularly, we’re less and less willing to accept the will of the voters and less inclined to believe in the democratic process if our side doesn’t win.
And that’s kind of scary. If you say the whole process is illegitimate, it makes it easier to justify trying to overturn an election. It could happen. There was an attempt to do it a year-and-a-half ago. Soon someone might actually succeed. Eventually we’d stop having real elections at all, like a lot of countries.
I guess I’ve strayed a bit from the lieutenant governor’s debate, so let’s return to it. Kudos to Rutledge, and also to Bledsoe, Webb, Rapert, Wood, Bequette, Krout and Gilbert, along with the participants in the other debates.
They showed up.