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Editorial: 2021 candidates should commit to a debate in Southwest Virginia

Editorial: 2021 candidates should commit to a debate in Southwest Virginia

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We’re in an unusual year where all the major sports seasons now overlap — baseball, basketball, football, hockey.

Now we’re about to add one more: It will soon be debate season.

Presidential debates. Senatorial debates. Congressional debates. We’d probably have dogcatcher debates if Virginia elected dogcatchers.

That means it’s also time for one of the most tiresome but predictable stories that come around every election cycle: Debates over debates. Candidates who think they’re behind always want more. Candidates who think they’re ahead always want fewer.

We’re going to skip past all that — no need to thank us — and jump right ahead to next year’s debates.

Next year Virginia will elect a new governor (and a bunch of other offices). We’d like to lay down a marker now before we know who any of those candidates are (and the jockeying on debate strategy begins): One of those debates next year should be in Southwest Virginia.

Historically, most statewide debates have been in Richmond, or elsewhere in the urban crescent.

In the whole history of gubernatorial debates in Virginia, there have been just two west of the Blue Ridge. Conveniently, both were recent. In 2013, Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli debated at Virginia Tech. In 2017, Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie were persuaded — some might say pressured — to debate at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

However, we need look no further than this year to see what happens when candidates are left to their own devices. This year, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner has agreed to three debates against his Republican opponent, Daniel Gade — one apiece in Northern Virginia, Norfolk and Richmond. Gade, as the challenger, naturally wants more debates and has accepted an invitation to a fourth — also in Richmond. As journalists, we always think there should be more. As journalists in Southwest Virginia we have a more specific question: Where’s the Southwest Virginia debate?

Now, to some extent, it doesn’t matter where the candidates debate. The debate at UVA-Wise was historic – there’d never been a debate that far southwest — but was only partially successfully in terms of forcing the candidates to concentrate on rural Virginia. Each candidate had some things to say on that subject, but both also recognized that most of their listeners — and potential voters — were elsewhere. Maybe there’s no way to avoid that (although we have some ideas). Still, it was better than nothing — and did secure a promise from Northam to expand UVA-Wise into a research university (something we point out because he hasn’t followed through on that promise).

So, let’s revise our proposal: There should be a debate in Southwest Virginia and it should focus specifically on Southwest Virginia. There will be plenty of opportunities for the candidates to debate whatever else they want to debate about but we as a region should demand a debate exclusively focused on issues unique to us. (Many of those will surely be about the economy).

To say “we as a region” is a fine phrase for editorial writers to throw around but doesn’t really mean very much. (Wait? Who’s critiquing whom here?) What we need is a specific organization to step forward to propose such a debate. We notice the three debates Warner has accepted this fall all have specific sponsors — the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Norfolk State University and the American Association of Retired People. The fourth debate that Gade wants would be sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

The debate at UVA-Wise in 2017 was sponsored by the Southwestern Virginia Technology Council, with planning from UVA-Wise and the University of Virginia’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. The technology council could do so again. So could any number of other organizations. We’re agnostic on the sponsor.

That invitation — whoever it comes from — should go out now. The other locations are always going to have an advantage — more people, more political connections, more everything. That’s why it’s important for Southwest Virginia to act early, to make it clear that a debate here isn’t just offered, it’s expected. No candidate can afford to turn down the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce; they can afford to turn down us, which is why we need to be even louder and more insistent that they don’t.

Now, that’s our practical side speaking — to secure one debate for Southwest Virginia. Here’s our philosophical side: Voters really ought to expect more debates. In 2017, we had three debates — that’s a pretty traditional number. In 2013, McAuliffe and Cuccinelli debated three times. In 2009, Bob McDonnell and Creigh Deeds debated four times. In 2005, Tim Kaine and Jerry Kilgore appeared together before multiple groups but only debated once on live television. In 2017, Gillespie challenged Northam to 10 debates because he felt that was in his strategic interest. Democrats laughed that off and the two sides ultimately settled on three. But Gillespie wasn’t wrong. Why do voters tolerate so few debates? Are our attention spans really that short? (Yes, but let’s not dwell on that.) We devote ourselves to multi-episode miniseries. “Game of Thrones” usually had 10 episodes per season. We watch football games every week. All those are entertaining but ultimately meaningless. Electing a governor is much more serious business. We’ll go back to a proposal we floated in 2017: The candidates should debate every week between the primary and the general election. Pick a different topic each week, which would force the candidates to go beyond their well-rehearsed sound bites and really talk about the issues. (Yes, that’s why this won’t happen). There should be 20 weeks between the primary and the general election. That sets up the perfect format: 20 questions.

If it’s good enough for a children’s game, it ought to be good enough for the candidates for governor. We won’t get 20 debates, of course. We’ll probably get three. But one of them should be in Southwest Virginia. How many of the candidates will agree to that now? We’re waiting.

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