Utah Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, Pete Ashdown, wants a debate with the current long- (long, long, long) time seat holder, Republican Orrin Hatch (see Ashdown press release). Actually, Ashdown wants a series of debates with Hatch. So far, the Hatch campaign has totally stonewalled Ashdown, treating him basically like he doesn’t exist.
Ashdown has scheduled a debate for all legitimate candidates for the seat Hatch currently holds for tomorrow at the Salt Lake City Main Library Auditorium from 10:30 AM to 12:30 PM. Ashdown says that a seat will be available at the debate for Hatch or for someone to represent him. Other debate participants will represent the Constitution Party, the Desert Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Personal Choice Party.
Ashdown’s frustration with the Hatch campaign is evident in his press release. Ashdown’s campaign has tried to schedule a debate with Hatch during the Utah State Fair anytime between September 7 and 17. According to Ashdown, the Hatch campaign is non-committal, and insists that it won’t even discuss a debate schedule until after Labor Day.
In his press release, Pete Ashdown openly accuses Senator Hatch of thinking that “the more he acknowledges me and my positions, the more people will know about my candidacy.” Obviously hoping for that kind of exposure, he says, “I think they will like what they see.”
And that is precisely Ashdown’s problem. Some will consider this assertion a sad commentary on the state of politics in Utah, but the fact of the matter is that Senator Hatch has little to gain and much to lose by engaging in early and/or numerous debates with any opponent, while Ashdown has little to lose and much to gain by engaging in debates with the incumbent. No Utahn is going to learn anything new about Orrin Hatch in a debate, so most won’t even care that he refuses to debate.
This kind of situation is not a new development in politics, nor is it a uniquely Utah phenomenon. Wherever you have an incumbent that is fairly confident of a commanding lead, public legitimization of opponents can only hurt, while treating opponents like annoying but unimportant insects can make the incumbent appear even stronger. This strategy will backfire on an incumbent that is more vulnerable, making him/her appear weak.
Challengers of a secure incumbent have it tough. They need legitimization with respect to the incumbent to have any hope of being competitive. Strong challengers of vulnerable incumbents gain this legitimization easily, especially if they have a positive public image. A strong party apparatus helps a lot too.
In Pennsylvania, for example Republican Senate incumbent Rick Santorum is quite vulnerable. His Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Bob Casey already has established a positive public image and has a strong party to back him up.
Voters generally only dump incumbents when they have a very strong beef with them. Take, for example, the displeasure Democratic Connecticut voters displayed toward Senator Joe Lieberman the other day. Unfortunately for Mr. Ashdown, Mr. Hatch has given most Utahns no substantial reason to fire him. Moreover, Ashdown’s reputation as a dynamic, smart, and strong geek/businessman resides within a fairly tight community and does not automatically translate into broad public legitimacy.
Also, while Utah Democrats like to be optimistic about the party’s popularity in the state, the fact is that it operates more like a third party in Utah than a viable opposition party. That could certainly change in the future. I’m sorry if this hurts people’s feelings, but the state party currently lacks the resources to offer a strong support system for candidates for major races. The national Democratic Party does not consider the race competitive, so they are reluctant to spend much of their political capital on it.
Put all of these factors together and you can see that Mr. Ashdown is in a very tough spot. This does, however, create a tremendous opportunity for Ashdown. More than one seemingly secure incumbent has gone down in flames to an obscure challenger. Senator Frank Moss, who was beaten by upstart Orrin Hatch in 1976 comes to mind. But usually there are a number of somewhat telltale dynamics at play in races where this happens. At present, nothing of that nature appears to be going Mr. Ashdown’s way.
Is it impossible for Pete Ashdown to win in November? Well, nothing is impossible. But I stand by what I wrote last November, when I said, “I believe that most of the people that actually vote in Utah won’t give five seconds of thought to Pete Ashdown between now and the ’06 elections.” I’m not saying that this is my personal choice. It’s simply the way I see it coming down in real life.