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Will avoiding tough questions pay off for congressional candidates?

nTwo congressional candidates seen as frontrunners to snag the Republican nomination in districts with vulnerable Democratic incumbents are being criticized for giving the media and constituents the silent treatment.

Democrats have blasted Republican Martha McSally for her refusal to answer yes or no to questions about how she’d vote on specific issues if elected in Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, and claim it’s a tactic to hide her true inclinations as a “rabid tea partier” running for a third time against Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Barber.

In the 1st Congressional District, the two Republican primary opponents of Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin have condemned him for avoiding the GOP activists in his attempt to secure the party’s nomination and challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick.

The national and local press have laid into both candidates over their strategy of avoiding tough questions and giving the media the silent treatment on the campaign trail.

But political observers say there’s good reason for McSally and Tobin to be cautious about what they say, who they say it to and how they say it.

Running a disciplined campaign means staying on message and playing to your strengths while avoiding the kind of mistakes — be it an embarrassing quote or a stated policy position — that could cost candidates a victory in the primary or haunt them in the general election.

And sometimes that means keeping the public or the media at arm’s length.

Dodging questions
A candidate for Congress starting in 2012, when she first ran for office in a special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, McSally has a compelling personal narrative that is well-known.

But she has flustered the media, and some voters in the 2nd Congressional District, by routinely declining to answer specific questions about how she’d vote on policy issues facing Congress.

Political analyst Stu Rothenberg criticized McSally in his Roll Call blog for refusing to give a clear answer on how she would have voted on a budget compromise that ultimately ended the government shutdown in October 2013. In a November post, Rothenberg wrote that instead of replying to his question with a simple “yes” or “no,” McSally answered with “a lot of baloney about not wanting to look backward and only wanting to look ahead.”

“This is one of those questions a candidate should not be allowed to duck, since the answer says something about the candidate’s views and approach to the legislative process,” Rothenberg wrote.

The narrative of McSally dodging questions has since snowballed. In interviews with the Washington Examiner, POLITICO and the Arizona Capitol Times, she dodged the same question as well as attempts to get a solid answer about her opinion on other policy decisions facing Congress.

“Beyond the issue of economic security, McSally doesn’t show much command of political issues,” the Examiner wrote in April.
After receiving an interview request from the Capitol Times, McSally’s campaign was initially reluctant to discuss her unwillingness to answer substantial questions, first insisting to speak off the record and then preferring to issue a statement.

Reached by phone, Patrick Ptak, spokesman for McSally, said the candidate is an open book on the campaign trail while talking with voters. She’s not reluctant to answer questions, he said, adding that she’s just more thoughtful and independent minded — and thus less likely to make a gut decision before she’s heard all sides of an issue.

“Ron Barber and the Democrats and the national media, it’s frustrating for them,” Ptak said. “They’re used to political candidates relying on partisan talking points and giving them what they want to hear, and that’s not who Martha is. She’s going to a read a bill before she votes for it.”

McSally’s website points to the “four pillars” of her campaign — the economy, leadership, national security and government overreach. While campaigning, Ptak said McSally is open about her support of equal pay and not balancing the budget on the backs of veterans. But those platitudes haven’t been enough to satisfy the media, or in some cases the GOP in the 2nd Congressional District.

“She won’t answer questions and if she does, it’s a sound bite. She’s a prepackaged, anointed by the RNC establishment candidate,” said Christine Bauserman, founder of the Alliance for Principled Conservatives. “I want a representative, and she’s not a representative.”

Getting the cold shoulder
Tobin’s political opponents have charged him with ducking candidate forums and other events in the district where he would be exposed to the most active segment of the GOP base, which also tends to be the most conservative segment of the party, and not generally aligned with Tobin’s campaign.

State Rep. Adam Kwasman, who along with rancher Gary Kiehne, is running against Tobin in the GOP primary in CD1, has repeatedly complained that Tobin hasn’t shown up to local forums and debates within the district. Kwasman said the reason Tobin isn’t appearing is because he would be held accountable by Republican precinct committeemen for his long record as a “liberal Republican.”

The candidates have already had three debates. The first was hosted in Navajo County in December, and all three Republican candidates attended. But in May, the debate’s moderator, Dara Vanesian, authored a resolution opposing Tobin’s candidacy for the office, stating he “has blatantly disregarded the conservative platform of the Republican Party.”

The two other debates Tobin has attended have been in-studio at Phoenix television stations, while Tobin has ignored several forums and debates scheduled by local GOP clubs and committees.

And it’s not just the local Republican clubs that have been receiving the silent treatment from Tobin’s campaigns.

Tobin has been known as one of the most accessible speakers of the House of Representatives to grace the Capitol in years, but since commencing his campaign for Congress, he has been especially leery of granting interviews to reporters.

Reporters who used to call his cell phone regularly were suddenly directed to contact his legislative spokesman or campaign consultant for interview requests, which have often been rebuffed.

Even Tobin’s hometown paper, The Daily Courier of Prescott, has received the cold shoulder. In May, the paper printed an article reviewing the accomplishments of the 2014 legislative session. But when the paper reached out to Tobin for his take, he declined to comment.

“Tobin has refused to talk to The Daily Courier about this year’s legislative session, citing a columnist’s criticism of him,” the paper wrote.

The Arizona Capitol Times had a similar experience when attempting to schedule an end-of-session question and answer interview with Tobin, which Tobin has consented to before and after each legislative session since 2012.

“His office refused multiple requests to sit down for an interview, and the only explanation given was that he ‘wanted more control’ over what would be printed,” the paper wrote.

Bill Cortese, Tobin’s campaign consultant, has only been on the job a few weeks after replacing Tobin’s previous consultant, and said he couldn’t comment about how the campaign previously managed media requests. But he said he believed a good working relationship with the press is important to communicate Tobin’s message to the public.

He said Tobin has been taking his role as speaker seriously, and now that the legislative session and the special session are over, Tobin will be hitting the campaign trail harder.

“He was committed to fulfill his responsibility as speaker, but I think he has been out there, and he’ll continue to be out there,” Cortese said.

Focusing on the primary
Political consultant Chuck Coughlin said McSally and Tobin are making the smart move: running one campaign at a time.

That means focusing on the primary while keeping an eye on the general.

Both candidates are the presumed front runners in their respective primary elections, but Coughlin insisted that nothing can be taken for granted.

“I watched Appalachian State beat Michigan,” Coughlin quipped. “One bad blog post or one bad statement, particularly in our media culture today, somebody can grab on to something and it just becomes a literal firestorm overnight.”

Seemingly small gaffes have brought down many serious campaigns, and in the digital age, nobody wants to be a YouTube sensation for the wrong reason. One of the first examples of major shifts in media and political landscape came in 2006, just after the advent of YouTube.

George Allen, a Republican U.S. senator from Virginia running for re-election at the time, used what some called a racial slur to describe one of his opponent’s campaign staff. A viral video of what became known as the “macaca moment” helped derail Allen’s campaign and arguably cost him the election.

More recently, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said at a campaign event that 47 percent of Americans “believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” Hidden-camera video of the statement emerged, devastating the campaign.

Carolyn Cox, chair of the Pima County Republican Party, said McSally and Tobin are trying to avoid the same fate as former CD2 candidate Jesse Kelly, who was quoted in the Tucson Weekly in 2009 saying he “would love to eliminate” Social Security.

“I think a lot of people saw what the media did to Jesse Kelly, where he said something out of context and the media just ran with it,” Cox said. “I think the candidates are just very cautious.”

Not a bad strategy
By avoiding answering pointed policy questions now, McSally can avoid providing her primary opponents, Shelley Kais and Chuck Wooten, with any sort of ammunition to attack her from the right. That could hurt McSally in a primary, when the electorate is comprised of the most “highly motivated, highly partisan” portion of the Republican Party, Coughlin said.

Longtime Tucson pollster and political consultant Margaret Kenski has worked with candidates from both sides of the aisle, and said there is a common theme when candidates get into major statewide or congressional races.

“Once you go big time, you get all sorts of consultants and the first thing they tell you is not to talk, that everything needs to be so carefully scripted. Because if you make a mistake, everyone is going to be all over it… Is that the best strategy? I don’t know. But I can see why they want to be cautious,” she said.

Kenski said she expects McSally to be more forthcoming on issues once she’s secured the GOP nomination, but until then, it’s wise to stay above the fray in a three-way primary race.

“You don’t want to give (your opponents) the credibility, you don’t want to give them attention, you don’t want to have to take stances that will come back and bite you later,” she said. “If you talk to the press a lot, you give them an opportunity to define what you said, maybe misinterpret it, maybe not. But there’s not much point taking a stance until the primary is over.”

But, she said, the same logic doesn’t necessarily apply to Tobin, who already has a record that can be used against him and isn’t the clear frontrunner in his primary against Kwasman and Kiehne.

“I have heard there has been disappointment because he hasn’t shown up for the (legislative district) meetings and stuff. At least that is the reputation he is getting. And he may think it’s not necessary, because he’s well known in an area of Phoenix, but you know how peculiar this district is,” she said.

By avoiding those kinds of statements that may play well to the Republican base in a primary, McSally and Tobin have the added benefit of starting the general election on more moderate footing. Running in swing districts against Democratic incumbents will require both GOP candidates to eventually move toward the center of the ideological spectrum, Coughlin said.

That’s particularly true of Tobin, who Coughlin called the only candidate in the GOP primary with a chance of upsetting Kirkpatrick. While Tobin’s primary competition, Kwasman and Kiehne, are each courting on the Tea Party base and extreme right of the Republican Party, Tobin’s strategy is to appeal to the rest of the party, letting his opponents split their more conservative base.

“It’s a fairly moderate district,” Coughlin said. “In order to win, you’re going to need to have some of these swing constituencies and non-primary voting audiences to be enthusiastic about your candidacy.”

As a political consultant, Bauserman said she understands the candidates’ hesitance to speak freely. But as a grassroots activist, Bauserman finds the campaigns’ lack of communication or strong stances on the issues troubling.

“I worry about the candidates being fearful of talking because they’re going to take that half-second sound bite and use it to beat them over the head and win an election. I understand that from a consulting angle, but it worries me that we’re putting these candidates in a bubble and making it so they’re afraid to come to debates and town halls,” Bauserman said.

She said Tobin and McSally will likely rely on TV ads to carry their messages instead of talking to the party faithful, and while she doesn’t like the strategy, she knows it works.

“I think Tobin’s doing the same thing (as McSally). He’s going to do a big air campaign, and actually it’s not a bad strategy. Kiehne and Kwasman are going to split the conservative base and Tobin’s going to win (the primary), so why go to the right for the base?” she said.

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