What constitutes a debate?
Supporters of Lynda Bennett and Madison Cawthorn—Republican congressional candidates who are participating in the June 23rd runoff—have been going back and forth over whether or not the candidates have been sufficiently accessible to voters in the lead up to the runoff. Central to the discussion is the question of formatting for public forums.
Supporters of Madison Cawthorn have begun circulating images of him partaking in a candidate forum on May 20th by himself. This supports a larger narrative put forward by the Cawthorn campaign painting his opponent—Lynda Bennett—as unwilling to debate, and less than forthcoming on her policy stances. Cawthorn himself pushed this narrative during the forum he attended alone when he answered a question regarding policy disagreements between the two candidates by saying, “It is very difficult for me to be able to answer that question and the main reason is I’m not exactly sure what my opponent’s policy positions are. You know, although we are inside this difficult time of COVID-19, she has nothing outside of talking points and platitudes to be able to say. Whereas my campaign is busy publishing policy statements.”
Bennett’s supporters have responded by pointing out that Bennett and Cawthorn both took part in a forum hosted by the Buncombe County GOP just two days earlier on May 18th. The format for that forum had the two candidates answering separate questions at separate times. Cawthorn went first, with audience members being able to pose questions. Then, when he was finished, Bennett took over and was posed questions in her own right. The event was also limited to Republican Party members, with unaffiliated voters and Democrats not allowed to attend.
According to the Mountaineer—one of three newspapers to host the May 20th event—the candidate’s unwillingness to agree to a similar format is what caused negotiations to break down in their attempt to bring both candidates together on the 20th. In an editorial published on the 16th, the paper stated, “Initial exchanges with the Bennett campaign looked promising until the campaign proposed we limit the forum to a one-on-one exchange with each candidate, more along the lines of a ‘fireside chat,’ which we rejected. Bennett’s campaign manager Bryan Hood stipulated, ‘While one candidate is being filmed, the other candidate should be in a holding/green room. No opposition candidate, staff, supporters will be allowed in the room during the filming of the opposing candidate’s time.’”
The question of how best to provide prospective voters with access to the information they will need in making a decision has given rise to two competing narratives, promoted by respective supporters of each campaign and those narratives are outlined below.
Bennett is unwilling to debate and is not forthcoming with her policy positions. This narrative is pushed forward by a clip of a primary debate in which Cawthorn is seen arguing in favor of journalists that some at the event are attempting to remove while Bennett watches on silently. It has also been promoted in press releases put forward by the Cawthorn campaign in which he claims that she refused to debate him.
Supporters of Lynda Bennett point to a series of forums that the candidates have done, one as recently as May 18th, as evidence that Bennett is willing to confront Cawthorn and answer questions. Her supporters tend to argue that such events should be restricted to registered Republican attendees, and that the format should be one that separates the two candidates so that they do not face the same questions at the same time. These two caveats seem to be what Cawthorn supporters are pointing to when they say Bennett is unwilling to debate.
Bennett has expressed her concern that agreeing to the wrong format may unintentionally result in strengthening the Democratic candidate in November. During the May 18th forum Bennett was asked by Buncombe County sheriff candidate A.J. Fox why she would not agree to debate Cawthorn—presumably he meant under a format different than the forum they were currently taking part in—and she began to respond, “Basically, I’ll just tell you this, I don’t want to give Moe Davis any advantage over me when I win this race…” at which point she was cut off by a moderator.
Her answer highlights the concern that a different format could hurt her candidacy and echoes the assumption made by Moe Davis in a mass direct message sent out on Twitter in which he stated that Bennett would most likely be the Republican nominee in the fall. In his message he stated, “Citizens United just endorsed my likely Republican candidate. So we already know we are facing a GOP that will pour millions in dark money into this race to buy another politician.”
Where things stand:
In the March 3rd primary Bennett received 22% of the vote, with Cawthorn receiving 20%. Since the state of North Carolina requires 30% to avoid a runoff, the two had to advance into a second round which will take place on June 23rd. Bennett has received endorsements from national figures such as Ted Cruz and Jim Jordan, as well as the House Freedom Fund, Susan B. Anthony List, and Citizens United.
Cawthorn has endorsements from 7 of the former candidates for the 11th District, 12 County Commissioners, and 13 Sheriffs, as well as the organization iVoteAmerica.