To Debate or Not to Debate: The Contrast in Conversation in the Arizona Governor’s and Secretary of State Race

By Ronald Sampson

To debate or not to debate; that is normally not a question for close races. If you’re up by a large margin, it is more reasonable to simply shrug off the demand for one, but one would be hard pressed to find examples of Arizona candidates refusing to debate in a tight race. Yet that is what happened here recently, and it provides a stark contrast to the optics and media treatment of the one who refused to the one who debated.

One of the biggest stories to date in Arizona’s elections has been the choice of Katie Hobbs not to participate in a debate against Kari Lake. The reasons her campaign team gave came off as somewhat disingenuous; that they wanted a forum-style conversation instead of the more traditional debate, that the Republican gubernatorial debate was an embarrassing mess (which is not unfair to say), and that debates can’t be held with someone with a tenuous grasp of facts.

However, there are two clear examples of how this reason doesn’t hold water. In addition to now-President Biden successfully engaging in debates with then-President Trump (someone who the political left would see as just as disengaged with the truth as Lake), Adrian Fontes showed how it is done with Mark Finchem in their debate for the Secretary of State race.

Finchem has done his best to sow doubt in the 2020 elections, was at the Capitol for the January 6th insurrection (although states that he did not enter into the Capitol itself), and has quoted conspiracy theorists routinely. Fontes came it him forcefully but did not allow it to devolve into a shouting match. He came armed with facts, demonstrated his experience, and by nearly all objective measures and analyses, won the debate. But the clearest difference was in how the media treated these two cases.

I will leave off the op-eds; after all, those are opinions, they are by nature not free of opinion, but I would highly encourage you to search for each candidate’s names with “debate” after it. It is clear, obvious, and unequivocal where the media has gone with this narrative, and rightly so.

As for the more unbiased takes, here is the one for the Governor’s race, and here is the one for the Secretary’s race. But it doesn’t matter how objective you try to be, the story is simple: one Democratic candidate chose to enter the battlefield, and one ran away.

The fact of the matter is, so precious few people actually watch debates. Jan Brewer appeared to have a mini-stroke in the opening statements of her debate against Terry Goddard for Governor, but few people remember that. Regardless of how bad a debate performance is, you can always find a soundbite or a “gotcha” moment. But when you flee from combat, that becomes the only story. That provides the vacuum that the other side can and will fill.

Arizona was a state developed by the hardiest of individuals; it was never meant to be a land for the soft and the meek. While there are always exceptions, the perception of having a fighter lead our state is important. Frankly, it’s important everywhere; how many ads have you seen lauding and praising a “fighter”? While some may call it unfortunate, one simple decision meant more than anything that could have been stated during that debate would have meant. And that will almost certainly play out when the votes are counted.