WASHINGTON – There are few things that congressional candidates Kostas Alexakis and Chuck Floyd agree on.
Alexakis, a 1st District Democrat, is no fan of Attorney General John Ashcroft or the North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, while Floyd, an 8th District Republican, would promote free trade and enhance the Patriot Act.
But the two congressional challengers see eye-to-eye when it comes to campaign debates: There are not enough, they say, and the incumbents want to keep it that way.
Floyd said he’s been asking his opponent, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, “for one-on-one debates since the spring and he has ducked us.”
The incumbents, for their part, point out that they participate regularly in candidate forums sponsored by community groups and that they have other responsibilities — namely working in Congress.
Challengers often complain that one of their most formidable obstacles is the fact that few voters know who they are. With five weeks until Election Day, they see debates, and the publicity they would generate, as a way to chip away at obscurity.
Incumbents understand that taking part in debates raises the profile of challengers, said University of Maryland political science professor Ron Walters, and may diminish the office-holder’s advantage in name recognition.
“There are a lot of natural advantages that accrue to incumbents, and name recognition is one,” Walters said.
But many of the challengers argue that avoiding debates shortchanges the public.
“I think that the voters are entitled to debates,” said Tony Salazar, a Republican running in the 7th District against Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore. He said Cummings has yet to agree to any one-on-one debates.
Instead of debates, many incumbents and challengers have appeared at planned forums in which candidates are invited to address small groups and answer audience questions. While some challengers have taken the opportunity to attack their opponents at such forums, they argue that the forums do not allow the candidates to address each other head-on.
Floyd, who recently attended a forum sponsored by the Prince George’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that Van Hollen’s participation in the two-hour event was not enough.
Floyd — whose campaign Web site features a campaign worker in a giant chicken suit with a sign that mocks Van Hollen for his alleged unwillingness to debate — noted that the NAACP forum included seven other candidates and that speakers’ time was limited.
But Van Hollen campaign manager Chuck Westover said Floyd’s “complaints are baseless.” He said Van Hollen intends to participate in three additional forums, including one sponsored by Seniors Organized for Change, a Rockville based group.
“The forums allow the candidates to express their views before concerned citizens, and if he’s considering the efforts of these various groups — the NAACP, the Seniors Organized for Change — if he (Floyd) considers their efforts inadequate, then that is an insult to those organizations,” Westover said.
Alexakis acknowledges that he has been invited to a number of forums, but said they do not offer challengers the opportunity to reach many voters.
“You end up talking to about 50 people in a small room,” said Alexakis.
Still, he said he has asked his opponent, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, to appear in 12 joint forums — one for every county in the 1st District — but has not received a response.
Gilchrest is scheduled to attend four forums, but is not aware of any invitation to appear in 12 others, said campaign aide Lynn Caligiuri.
Alexakis also complained that Maryland Public Television does not plan to air candidate debates this year, as it has in the past, what he called an “unfortunate” decision.
“Maryland Public Television is failing miserably by skipping these debates,” Alexakis said. “There are 12 counties in my district, and the only way a challenger can reach so many people is if public television grants access — which is their mandate.”
MPT does intend to tape five-minute candidate interviews, said spokeswoman Colleen Wright, but has not finalized plans for airing them.
While Alexakis said the lack of media access may be the biggest hindrance to successfully challenging incumbents, few political experts think that exposure can, by itself, reverse the trend of sky-high incumbent re-election rates. In the 2002 elections, 96 percent of the incumbents who sought re-election won.
“Incumbents are pretty much unassailable,” said James Gimpel, another University of Maryland political scientist. “One of these challengers might have a chance if the incumbent dies.”
Gimpel said that redistricting, not media access, is probably the single most important factor in ensuring incumbent re-election.
But the challengers said they should at least be given that shot.
“If the conventional wisdom tells incumbents to avoid debates and ignore the voters, it’s just bad conventional wisdom,” Salazar said.
-30- CNS 09-24-04