Debates in North Dakota’s Senate race may do little to sway voters, but such forums could be the best point of access for information about each candidate.
“You want the debates to matter, and that’s the whole purpose behind them, that rich, deep information that should allow people to make a decision,” said Mark Springer, associate professor of political science at the University of Mary in Bismarck.
Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer have three debates scheduled, the first one being Oct. 5 live on Prairie Public TV, radio and online. The North Dakota Newspaper Association will host a debate on Oct. 18 in Bismarck, followed by the North Dakota Broadcasters Association on Oct. 26 in Fargo.
But what effects the debates may have on voters remain to be seen. Steve Andrist, executive director of NDNA, said the public events provide information about each candidate to help in voters' decision making, coming close to Election Day after months of political ads.
“A lot of times, I think voters, unless they’re particularly engaged from one party’s point or another, they get pretty sick of the campaigning in June, July and August, and, by the time October rolls around, now they’re really starting to pay attention and kind of work past all the negative partisanship that starts happening early in the campaign, and to try to make real decisions,” Andrist said.
Springer said other voters may have already made up their minds from ideological alignment, previous knowledge of the candidates, interactions with them or may just go into the voting booth and decide based on the most recent issue affecting them.
“Some people already have their minds made up. They could have 20 debates, and it’s not going to inch them one way or the other, unless one of the candidates has a bit of problem with the debate,” said Springer, adding that the Senate race looks to be a tight one, making undecided voters an important factor.
"That could be really interesting if it comes down to a wire," Springer said.
Heitkamp, in an interview Monday with the Tribune editorial board, said she agreed to nine debates. She described what she said has been Cramer’s unwillingness to schedule debates, including a nationally televised Fox News debate.
“We quickly agreed to it,” Heitkamp said. "Congressman Cramer's team has said no."
“We elected not to participate in a Fox News debate since our focus is on North Dakota voters rather than a national audience,” Cramer campaign spokesman Tim Rasmussen said in an email, adding that Cramer also declined a debate hosted by the Fargo Chamber of Commerce. "As previously stated, our focus is to address a broad range of issues not single issues."
Heitkamp said she put no restrictions on debates and said the ones scheduled are “not enough.”
“To me, it’s the one place where people can go to watch the interaction that is not a 30-second or a 60-second ad, and to have people clarify positions that are in those ads, and actually come out of the candidate’s mouth,” she said.
“Our focus is on state voters and we favor debate invitations from statewide media,” Rasmussen said. “This maximizes the number of North Dakota voters these events reach to allow a thorough vetting of each candidate on a wide range of issues. Also, our focus is on broad-ranging debates on a number of topics with large audiences rather than single-issue debates to small groups.”
He also said Cramer has more than 50 town hall and talk radio events scheduled up to Nov. 6 and called on Heitkamp to do the same: "We encourage her to match this availability to our state voters."
A handful of other debates and appearances apparently remain to be arranged. Rasmussen said Cramer has accepted invitations from the University of North Dakota College Republicans for Nov. 2 and a “kitchen table discussion with faith leaders” in Fargo, to be determined. Cramer's campaign also has been in discussion with other media outlets for "broad-ranging debates broadcast to large audiences," he added.