Whatever you think of Thom Tillis’s proposal for ten debates, one thing is clear: it would be unprecedented in NC political history. In fact, by my count, that would be almost as many debates in one Senate election as we’ve had, total, in the past 30 years.

You see, unlike at the presidential level, debates for Senate aren’t really a “thing”. The campaigns negotiate and make arrangements for a debate, but if they fall through, there are no debates and that’s that. It’s unthinkable, of course, to not have our presidential candidates debate, but there’s no such outcry when a Senate candidate passes on the opportunity. For incumbents, debating has few upsides. It gives free press to your opponent and there’s always the chance you’ll end up saying something stupid that hurts your campaign.

To his credit, Richard Burr participated in three debates when he was running for reelection in 2010, even though he didn’t have to and could have hid behind his campaign advertisements. His participation in those debates were essentially a gift to his Democratic opponent, Elaine Marshall. Fortunately for Burr, he got through the debates without making any major mistakes and coasted to reelection.

His example was in contrast to previous incumbents. There were no debates in the Hagan-Dole race (correction: there was at least one debate between Dole and Hagan, in June 2008). And Dole’s predecessor, Jesse Helms, refused to debate Harvey Gantt because he asserted, probably correctly, that everyone already knew where he stood and there was no point in giving his opponent free publicity. Lauch Faircloth tried the same tactic in his race against John Edwards, but he wasn’t able to get away with it; Edwards easily depicted him as hiding. Indeed, most candidates will debate their opponents only to avoid being seen as evasive.

But even securing a debate win doesn’t mean much. Only a small fraction of the electorate tunes in, and they’re almost never decisive affairs. Back in 1992, Lauch Faircloth gave a lousy performance against incumbent Terry Sanford, but he won the election anyway. And Jim Hunt was acclaimed as the victor in several raucous debates against Jesse Helms, but Helms was returned to Washington.

Some of these old televised debates are available online from C-SPAN. I’ve compiled them below. They should be of interest to extreme NC political junkies or those who suffer from major insomnia. Enjoy.

Helms vs. Hunt (July 29, 1984)
Helms vs. Hunt (September 9, 1984)
Sanford vs. Faircloth (September 27, 1992)
Dole vs. Bowles (October 14, 2002)
Dole vs. Bowles (October 19, 2002)
Burr vs. Bowles (September 27, 2004)
Burr vs. Marshall (October 11, 2010)


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