Republican candidates in battleground states skip debates

(NEW YORK) — Republican candidates are shying away from the debate stage as the midterm elections approach.

Over a half dozen GOP candidates in crucial state and federal races have either skipped out on or not committed to primary debates.

Joe Lombardo, a gubernatorial candidate in Nevada, turned down a chance to debate in January. In Nebraska, Jim Pillen, another gubernatorial candidate, turned down offers to debate his opponents in March, telling ABC News debates amount to “political theater.”

In Pennsylvania, Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz did not take part in the first GOP Senate primary debate in January, citing a “prior commitment.”

And the frontrunner in the GOP Senate primary debate in Georgia is Hershal Walker, who said he won’t debate his primary opponents and is instead focused on facing Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock on the debate stage in the general election.

“We have always strongly encouraged all candidates to participate in our debates,” said Lauri Strauss, executive director of the Atlanta Press Club, which is organizing 15 primary debates in Georgia.

When candidates choose not to participate, there are ripple effects.

In North Carolina, Republican representative and Senate candidate Ted Budd declined to take part in a primary debate in February and said he won’t attend one scheduled for April.

When word spread that Budd was not participating in the debate this month, GOP Senate candidate and former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory pulled out too, saying he would only debate if Budd did. Once McCrory dropped out, that left only one candidate and The North Carolina Faith and Freedom Coalition, which was organizing the debate, decided to cancel it altogether.

In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine also decided not to attend the state’s March GOP gubernatorial primary debate. Jill Zimon, executive director of the Ohio Debate Commission, said once DeWine made it public that he would not participate, former Rep. Jim Renacci’s campaign told the Ohio Debate Commission that Renacci would not attend unless DeWine changed his mind.

Asked why the governor declined the invitation, DeWine’s campaign told ABC News that he “is the most publicly accessible governor in Ohio history” and that Ohioans already know where he stands on the issues.

Richard Davis, the president of the State Debate Coalition and co-founder of the Utah Debate Commission, said Republican candidates are becoming more “empowered” to refuse traditional debates.

The Republican National Committee’s continuous threats to bar their party’s presidential nominees from participating in debates organized by the Presidential Debate Commission, he said, has encouraged other Republican candidates to set debate requirements in exchange for their participation.

“[Republicans believe they] can set the ground rules and say that organizations that run debates…are biased,” Davis said.

While Republicans have been declining debates in eyebrow raising numbers, Democrats are not immune.

In Pennsylvania, the frontrunner in the Democratic Senate race, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, did not take part in the first primary debate Sunday and instead met with voters in rural Pennsylvania. Fetterman’s campaign, however, said he has committed to three other upcoming debates.

As more candidates skip out on debates or dictate the conditions under which they will appear, both Davis and Strauss believe candidates are shirking an important public service for voters.

“How can someone run for office and want to be elected if they’re not willing to debate their opponents and let the public know what they stand for?” Strauss said.

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