LITTLE ROCK — With a proposal for a series of “Lincoln-Douglas style” debates around Arkansas with Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton could change the dynamics in a race that’s mostly been waged through an increasingly costly television ad blitz.
He also joins a list of candidates who have looked to debates as a game changer. It hasn’t always worked for the candidate seeking the debate.
Cotton called for the two rivals to meet in debates modeled after the 1858 meetings between Illinois Senate candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Under Cotton’s proposal, the two would face without moderators or panelists asking questions.
“There used to be a time in our politics when voters could look the two candidates in the eye and hear from them directly — that’s what I’m inviting Senator Pryor to participate in today,” Cotton said.
Such a format is probably unlikely, with Pryor indicating last week he’d prefer the traditional debate format used in recent state races in Arkansas. Those usually include at least one debate on public television and possibly another on one of the state’s commercial stations.
“I look forward to debating my opponent, I really do. ... I’m excited to get around and talk about issues,” Pryor told reporters last week.
No matter the format, a face-to-face matchup between Cotton and Pryor could change one of the most closely watched and expensive Senate fights in the country. Since Cotton joined the race last year, the fight has mostly been waged via an advertising blitz from outside groups and daily press releases from both camps attacking the other side on taxes, health care and other issues. A debate could be unpredictable.
“It is really one of the handful of moments in a race where the candidates are going to be a little less scripted,” said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College. “Even if you have a debate with a whole lot of rules, there are still moments in any debate where a candidate can perform particularly ably or make that small mistake or a large mistake that can be used thereafter.”
Going unscripted poses dangers for both candidates. Twelve years have passed since Pryor, who didn’t face a Republican opponent in 2008, has had a major televised campaign debate. Debates weren’t the deciding factor in Cotton’s congressional victory two years ago against an underfunded Democratic rival.
There are high-profile examples throughout Arkansas history of debates helping candidates.
Cotton may need to look no further than his rival’s father to see why challenging a rival to a debate doesn’t always work out. In 1972, David Pryor was a three-term congressman who had been able to force incumbent Sen. John McClellan into a runoff. He challenged the fellow Democrat to a televised debate.
Instead of solidifying the edge David Pryor appeared to have heading into the runoff, the hour-long debate gave McClellan a chance to attack his challenger for his ties to organized labor. McClellan went on to win the party’s nomination by 18,000 votes. It was the elder Pryor’s only defeat at the polls, and one he has said it continues to sting.
“I appeared naive and inexperienced, he appeared the seasoned veteran. Despite long hours preparing, I seemed disorganized and rushed, while he poured out facts and statistics, holding up documents for the huge television audience to see. The old lion had cornered his prey,” the elder Pryor wrote in his autobiography.
Although they may differ on the format and timing of the debate, Cotton and Pryor are both looking to avoid being the prey.