There appears to be much political jackassery afoot in the candidate haggling over debate(s) in the Mississippi gubernatorial race.
At this point, just weeks away from the Nov. 7 general election, it’s still unclear whether Mississippi voters will be treated to such a televised debate. In the meantime, they can enjoy some childish fear and loathing about it from the candidates and campaigns on social media.
Here’s the deal:
Incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves doesn’t want to debate. This makes sense, politically. When you’re a well-known incumbent sitting on a lead and a pile of cash, facing a lesser-known and funded challenger, conventional wisdom is you have little to gain and much to lose from debates.
Plus, Reeves himself has said that extemporaneous speaking and charming a live audience is not his strong suit. He’s right.
Presley, on the other hand, really wants to debate. This makes sense. He needs the exposure.
Plus, Presley is an excellent orator, silver tongued, has the gift of gab. Compared to Reeves, he’s a regular Daniel Webster. Many politicos figure he’ll mop the floor with Reeves in a debate.
Ergo, Presley has been calling for debates for months, vowing to spar with Reeves “any time, anywhere” and agreeing to any debate requests he’s gotten. He’s accepted five invites to date. These include invites from WJTV and Gray TV stations — outlets with wide reach across the state.
Reeves had ducked the invites, and when pressed said he was busy and his campaign was working on it. Presley’s campaign made much political hay of this, saying Reeves was scared to debate or answer questions in front of Mississippians at-large. Presley’s campaign even ran an ad with a tracker and bloodhounds looking for Reeves, a la Sen. Mitch McConnell’s famous ads from the 1980s.
Facing these slings and arrows, plus the fact that Mississippi voters expect gubernatorial candidates to debate, Reeves had to do something. He recently told media his campaign was working with Presley’s campaign on debates — plural. Presley’s campaign promptly responded that this was a lie.
Then on Wednesday, T-minus 34 days until the election, Reeves announced he had accepted a debate invite, from Jackson television station WAPT, for a debate on Nov. 1 — just six days before the election.
Now, this appears to be a rope-a-dope move by the Reeves campaign. It appears likely his campaign invited itself to a debate with WAPT without any consultation of the Presley campaign.
Normally setting up a debate in a major race involves weeks of negotiations and agreeing to ground rules between the host and the competing campaigns. And most debates are held further out than six days from an election. That compressed timing would make it impossible for any candidate who mopped up in a debate to make political hay of it, or for voters to digest it and use it in choosing.
And the debate Reeves agreed to is, oddly, with the Jackson station with the smallest reach, lacking affiliates to broadcast the debates statewide. If only that station airs it, it would not be broadcast live in numerous key election battleground areas of the state.
This all raises some questions of whether WAPT practiced parity in formulating this debate, or worked with the Reeves campaign on organizing the event before even inviting Presley.
This prompted Presley to vow that he’s going to go ’round the state and have the five debates he agreed to, even without Reeves. He said he’ll bring an empty chair to stand in for the governor.
Now, as compelling as this would be to watch, it’s doubtful the media outlets would schedule valuable air time for Presley to argue with a chair.
And while Reeves’ desire to hold off on a debate until just days before the election and limit its reach seems absurd, Presley has gone around for months saying he’d debate Reeves anywhere, any time. He’s sort of backed himself into a corner on agreeing to whatever Reeves and WAPT cook up. The Reeves camp has already been chiding Presley on social media for wavering on whether he’ll do the said ridiculous last-minute debate.
One would think Mississippi voters deserve better than all this, and deserve to see candidates debate and answer questions. It remains to be seen if — and when — that will happen. Until then, it appears the political jackassery over debates will continue.