October 10

By Susan Milligan

In the excruciatingly close races for Senate seats next month, a candidate stumble or knock-out punch in a debate could swing just enough voters to make the difference. In the three debates held last week for races in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Arizona, candidates in both parties managed to avoid doing either. But did the debates move the needle?

Here are some takeaways from the first week of midterm election debates:

We don’t talk about election denial, no, no no.

The Republican candidates in the three debates have, in the past, raised questions about the validity of the 2020 election. But last week, all three distanced themselves from those previous statements or votes..

Arizona GOP candidate Blake Masters said in a campaign ad last year that “I think Trump won in 2020.” Pressed on the issue in last week’s debate against incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, Masters reversed himself, saying President Joe Biden “is absolutely the president. He’s duly sworn and certified. He’s the legitimate president. He’s in the White House.”

GOP North Carolina Rep. Ted Budd voted against certifying election results in key states when the House moved in 2021 to certify the election on Jan. 6 and 7. In a September 2021 interview with the Associated Press, Budd acknowledged the election was legitimate, and he reiterated that reality during Friday night’s debate.

“I don’t like what Joe Biden is doing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Budd said, but “he is the president.” His opponent, Democrat Cheri Beasley, countered that Budd “continues to spread the big lie of the 2020 election.”

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, meanwhile, during Friday’s debate denied any involvement in a scheme to hand a fake set of Trump electors to former Vice President Mike Pence.

“President Biden is now president of the United States,” Johnson said during his debate against Democrat Mandela Barnes.

Democrats don’t want to talk about Biden, but Republicans do.

Budd tried to tie Beasley to Biden, who is unpopular in North Carolina, while Beasley walked the line – saying she’d welcome Biden to the state but not saying she’d campaign with him.

“Joe Biden is on the ballot on Nov. 8 and he goes by the name of Cheri Beasley,” Budd said.

Masters, invoking the top voter issue of inflation, slammed the “massive crushing inflation that Joe Biden and Mark Kelly caused” and said Kelly was a reliable vote for what Biden wanted. Masters compared Kelly to his colleague, Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who has been one of two Democratic senators delaying or thwarting Biden’s agenda.

Abortion was front and center – and Democrats slammed Republicans as being not up-front or centrist about it.

Abortion rights are a central theme for Democrats as they seek to cling to power in both chambers of Congress, and a glut of new voter registrations by female voters suggests that strategy is working. All three Democratic debaters went after their opponents for antiabortion stances.

Johnson – who said women “can move” from Wisconsin if they don’t like abortion restrictions in the state and once co-sponsored a “personhood” bill that says life begins at conception – punted on the issue, saying it should be left up to a state referendum. He said he would then just be one Wisconsinite vote on the matter.

Barnes made it more personal, saying he was his mother’s only child but not her only pregnancy, since she needed an abortion to terminate a problematic pregnancy. And he invoked the case of another abortion patient in the news.

“A 10-year-old girl in Ohio was raped and had to cross state lines to get an abortion. That’s Ron Johnson’s America,” Barnes said.

Masters – who scrubbed his campaign website of abortion references after the issue began to hurt Republicans – didn’t address his previous anti-abortion positions, saying only that he supported a national ban on the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Kelly accused him of trying to sound more moderate on the issue than he is. “You think you know better than women and doctors about abortion,” Kelly said.

Budd declined to say whether he’d support the 15-week abortion ban, saying, “I just want to save unborn lives. I want to protect lives.” Beasley said her opponent was “leading the charge on an absolute ban on abortion without exceptions for rape, incest or risk to a mother’s health.”

Republicans wanted to talk about crime and immigration. Democrats wanted to talk about Social Security.

Rising crime rates have been a consistent theme for GOP candidates this election season, and the GOP Senate candidates mentioned it as much as they could. Both Budd and Johnson accused their opponents of wanting to “defund the police” – though Johnson acknowledged that Barnes had never actually used that phrase. Both Beasley and Johnson denied that accusation, and Barnes retorted by saying Johnson – who has greatly downplayed the events of Jan. 6 – didn’t care about protecting the Capitol and D.C. police who fought off Jan. 6 insurrectionists.

All three Republicans talked about doing a better job of securing the border – a popular theme among the GOP rank and file.

Democrats, meanwhile, tapped a common attack on Republicans, saying they would go after “entitlement” programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Barnes said Johnson has referred to Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” and “candy.” Johnson downplayed his suggestions that entitlement programs be reevaluated. “What I’ve been saying is we should be looking at all spending so we can prioritize,” Johnson said. “And Social Security, Medicare would be at the top of the priority list.”

Kelly accused Masters of wanting to “send your Social Security savings to Wall Street,” a reference to an earlier Masters idea to privatize the retirement program. But after he won the August primary, Masters told reporters he no longer believed Social Security should be privatized.

No knockouts and no major stumbles.

Debates can make or break a candidate – but only if there is a major mistake or lopsided performance. With mass media and social media, voters tend to be already familiar with the candidates – and if they’re not interested, they’re probably not watching the debate.

In all three debates, each candidate reassured their party’s base voters by parroting their respective parties’ talking points. There weren’t major fireworks, and the Wisconsin debate – which didn’t allow for rebuttals – was very much in the control of the moderator.

Barnes and Johnson are set to debate again on Thursday, but the Arizona and North Carolina contenders will not meet again. The next debate for a Senate seat is Monday night in Ohio, when Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan will face off against GOP nominee J.D. Vance. On Friday, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock is scheduled to debate his GOP opponent, Herschel Walker, in Georgia.