Editorial: Mike DeWine shirking duty by cheating Ohio voters out of debate with Nan Whaley


A recent editorial by the USA Today Network Ohio:

Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s decision to skip debates leading up to the Nov. 8 election is a slap in the face of his Democratic challenger Nan Whaley.

That’s one thing.

Far more outrageous, his actions show contempt for the will of Ohio voters and the democratic process.

The refusal to publicly debate is also part of a disturbing trend, nationally, by Democrats and Republicans, departing from traditional American norms.

The people want and need a debate, but it seems DeWine is content to run out the clock until Election Day. A recent USA TODAY Network Ohio/Suffolk University poll shows 84% of likely Ohio voters want candidates for the state’s top political posts to face off in one-on-one debates.

Our boards are left to conclude DeWine is so confident the fundamentals of the race are in his favor, that he doesn’t have to care what you think.

Ducking out of debate is a disservice

Last week, DeWine and Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance officially declined to participate in Ohio Debate Commission debates planned for October. DeWine argued Ohioans already know where he stands on key issues from the economy to guns and abortion.

Meanwhile, Vance, who has since agreed to take part in two debates with his Democratic challenger Tim Ryan in Cleveland and Youngstown, spurned the Ohio Debate Commission debates because its executive director Jill Zimon is a “liberal Tim Ryan donor who has repeatedly and publicly smeared Republican,” according to his campaign.

The Ohio Debate Commission is a nonprofit organization of which The Enquirer, The Akron Beacon Journal, The Columbus Dispatch and other media organizations, voting rights groups and foundations are supporters.

While we reject Vance’s “too liberal” narrative for ducking out on the Ohio Debate Commission debates, we are pleased to see that voters will at least get a chance to see him debate Ryan before the midterms.

DeWine cheating voters out of debate

DeWine owes voters no less.

This would be only the second time since 1978 that there’s not been a gubernatorial debate.

Incumbent Gov. John Kasich’s decision to not debate Democrat Ed FitzGerald in 2014 was the other one.

The fact that DeWine is refusing to debate the first woman ever nominated for governor reflects poorly on him and robs both Whaley and Ohioans of a truly historical moment.

It might seem like sound political strategy to not debate given DeWine’s big lead over Whaley in polling (53% to 39%, according to the USA TODAY Network/Suffolk poll), fundraising and name recognition.

DeWine probably figures he has little to gain and more to lose by going toe-to-toe with Whaley in a public debate where he could make a costly gaffe.

The incumbent governor likely isn’t eager at this stage to defend attacks on his record or answer questions about former President Donald Trump, abortion, gun control or his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But none of those are good reasons for cheating voters. DeWine must consider the value of the debates to voters over his only personal and political gains.

Debates are not a ‘gotcha’ game

Debates are the equivalent of a job interview for candidates running for office.

They allow voters a chance to see how quickly candidates can think on their feet, handle criticism and answer tough questions. Voters can compare and contrast candidates’ style in real-time. And in these times of misinformation and misleading campaign ads, debates offer voters, especially those with limited information, a glimpse at who candidates really are, their grasp of history and the issues, competence and even their temperament.

Broadcasters can tell you state and local debates are far from rating-getters.

Some might argue that they don’t change votes and are too often about “gotcha” moments for viral social media and political ads rather than real conversations and information. However, they can produce defining moments, such as the angry nose-to-nose confrontation this year between former state Treasurer Josh Mandel and businessman Mike Gibbons during a Republican primary debate for the Senate nomination.

Moments like that one may not move diehard supporters, but they have been known to sway undecided or wavering voters.

Ohio candidates must be ‘unafraid’ to defend positions

Candidates need to be willing to publicly debate and not shy away from them out of fear of scrutiny, fact-checking or blowing a big lead in the polls. They should be prepared to argue the issues and stand on their convictions, policy positions and the accuracy of their statements regardless of their opponent or the forum in which these things might be challenged.

Participating in debates shows a respect for the democratic process and voters.

Republican Sen. Rob Portman and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown understand this, which is why both still debated opponents in their last elections despite holding sizable leads in the polls.

Portman in 2016 held three debates with Democratic former Gov. Ted Strickland, and Brown agreed to debate Republican nominee Rep. Jim Renacci in 2018.

Both stood up to attacks on their record and personal lives and answered tough questions, despite having little to gain personally from the debates. The previous two Republican governors before Kasich, George Voinovich and Bob Taft, also participated in debates with their Democratic opponents before easily winning reelection.

They were all unafraid and understood the importance of answering tough questions outside the presence of their political handlers and without carefully crafted scripts filled with talking points.

They respected the critical role debates play in educating voters on where candidates stand on the key issues. And they recognized their duty to serve as exemplars of how we engage civilly across differences.

Candidates who say no to debates shirk this responsibility and set a dangerous precedent in refusing to even engage with the other side. This is a move away from the tradition of civic debate and dissent and, therefore, a move away from democratic norms that form the bedrock of our nation.

As our society becomes an increasingly closed off echo chamber, we need more conversation across political ideologies and more thoughtful debate and discussion, not less.

DeWine should debate Whaley. He owes it to Ohio voters.

— USA Today Network Ohio, September 28, 2022