Note: This story has been revised to include additional information.
With one deadline already in the rearview mirror, it’s still not clear if the Democratic nominee for governor will get on a debate stage with her opponent before the November general election.
Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs missed the Aug. 26 deadline to RSVP for the popular election debate hosted by the Citizens’ Clean Elections Commission and Arizona PBS and her team has said they’ll seek changes to the debate format. On Thursday afternoon, an official said the Hobbs team was expected to meet with the commission later that day.
Hobbs’ hesitance raises the prospect that an event usually viewed as a key part of a gubernatorial election campaign won’t happen this year – or it will come in a radically different form. But Hobbs could be forced to make a decision soon. The Clean Elections Commission set a new RSVP deadline of Sept. 2 – though that, like the Aug. 26 deadline, might be soft.
Kari Lake, the former Fox 10 anchor and GOP nominee, said she’ll definitely show up for a debate and has lambasted Hobbs for the lack of commitment.
“Come out, come out wherever you are, Katie. I’m not afraid to answer tough questions, and you owe it to the people of Arizona to do the same,” she said in a statement earlier this month, as Hobbs equivocated in the lead-up to the deadline. In a video posted on Twitter, she even offered to let Hobbs choose the moderator and “write the questions,” though that would entail other changes to the Clean Elections Commission’s debate format.
Debate invitations went out to the candidates on Aug. 10, and shortly after 5 p.m. on Aug. 26, Hobbs’ campaign manager emailed the commission asking to “meet to discuss changes to the proposed format.” A meeting was tentatively set for Thursday, said Tom Collins, the Clean Elections Commission’s executive director.
Joe Wolf, a spokesman for Hobbs, declined to say what specific changes the Hobbs campaign is seeking, like having the candidates appear separately or giving the moderator a mute button.
Collins also declined to comment on any potential changes and whether the commission would be open to changing the format, but he said the commission is always available to talk to candidates about the debates and any concerns they have.
Arizona Capitol Times reporters serve as moderators for Clean Elections debates among candidates for the Legislature, but are not involved in debates between statewide candidates.
The Hobbs team’s complaints center around the allegation that the GOP primary debate, which featured Lake and challengers Karrin Taylor Robson, Paola Tulliani Zen and Scott Neely, devolved into a “circus.”
Wolf said that showed that Lake didn’t want a “legitimate policy debate.” “No disrespect to Ted whatsoever, (but) Kari Lake has no intention of doing anything other than turning this into a farce,” he said, referring to longtime Arizona journalist Ted Simons, who is set to host the debate.
But critics point out that Hobbs also didn’t show up for a debate with her primary challenger Marco Lopez, and they say it’s more likely Hobbs’ team is wary of a debate because it would create a dangerous opportunity for Hobbs to commit a costly gaffe.
“If I was working on that campaign, I would be concerned about that because I don’t think she’s demonstrated the ability to answer questions very well,” said Daniel Scarpinato, a Republican strategist and former staffer to Gov. Doug Ducey, who advised Ducey’s 2018 re-election campaign.
“She doesn’t want to debate,” Scarpinato added. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Kari Lake or Marco Lopez. And it wouldn’t matter if it was Karrin Taylor Robson or Matt Salmon. She doesn’t want to do this.”
Two polls published in August indicate the race will be close. One found Hobbs in the lead and the other put Lake on top, but in both polls the margin of error was greater than the percentage separating the candidates.
The debate is scheduled for Oct. 12 and Collins indicated that the Clean Elections Commission might be open to letting Hobbs miss this week’s deadline without penalty, but it could affect the commitments of broadcasters who are set to air the debate. “I don’t know what happens to the broadcast after Friday,” he said.
In the invitation sent to the gubernatorial candidates, the Clean Elections Commission said more than 30 TV and radio stations around the state had committed to airing the debate, and more than a dozen newspapers planned to provide streaming video of the event.
“This debate will have reach that rivals the Super Bowl in Arizona,” they wrote.
There is some recent precedent for campaigns seeking changes to the parameters of commission debates.
For the GOP gubernatorial primary debate Simons was set to moderate with Stacey Barchenger from The Arizona Republic. But Barchenger, whose reporting has drawn the ire of the Lake campaign, was removed at the last minute following a request from Lake. (Clean Elections justified the move by saying that the original format proposed to candidates had only one moderator).
Going back at least two decades, Arizona’s Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates have participated in at least one election debate, and in recent years that’s meant a debate moderated by Simons of Arizona PBS.
In 2014, Ducey, then the Republican nominee to replace GOP Gov. Jan Brewer, and Democratic candidate Fred DuVal joined Libertarian candidate Barry Hess and Independent John Mealer for a debate hosted by Simons. In 2018, Ducey, by then the incumbent, faced off against Democratic challenger David Garcia and Green Party candidate Angel Torres in a debate that Simons hosted.
Collins said that if one candidate backs out, Clean Elections and PBS would likely go forward with a one-on-one candidate conversation. That’s what happened in the Democratic primary debate, when Simons sat down with Lopez after Hobbs declined to show up.
Hobbs and Lake are set to participate in a Sept. 7 candidate forum hosted by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, but they’ll appear separately during that event. A spokeswoman for the chamber said that was the originally proposed format for the forum, not a change of plans.
The Republican and Democratic candidates for all other statewide offices have confirmed they’ll participate in Clean Elections Debates, but the gubernatorial race isn’t the only high-profile campaign with a debate in jeopardy.
Staffers for U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly also emailed the Clean Elections Commission last week to inquire about potential changes to the debate format and missed the Aug. 26 deadline to say if he’ll participate.
The Kelly campaign did sound a more confident note about the chances that Kelly will eventually get in the ring with his Republican opponent, tech executive Blake Masters.
“Debating is an important Arizona tradition, which is why Senator Kelly participated in a debate in 2020 and looks forward to doing it again in 2022,” Sarah Guggenheimer, a spokeswoman for Kelly, wrote in an email on August 29. “Following a productive meeting with Clean Elections and PBS, and pending a final agreement, we believe Arizonans will get the chance to see the stark choice in front of them this November.”
Masters has already committed to participating in the debate. Polls indicate that Kelly has a significant lead in the Senate race.