GOP’s Ross refusing to debate his opponent

It’s a script nearly every challenger in an election follows: Throw the gauntlet down for the incumbent to agree to a series of debates and then try to hold their feet to the fire for as many encounters as you can force to get attention and recognition.

It’s a pattern very familiar to Republicans in Massachusetts because of the dominance of Democrats in nearly every office save governor and lieutenant governor. State Sen. Richard Ross, however, seems to be taking the lesson to heart. The Republican incumbent from Wrentham is refusing to debate his Democratic challenger, Becca Rausch of Needham, despite at least seven attempts at arranging the face-off by the League of Women Voters.

“When candidates refuse to participate in opportunities to help their future constituents learn more about them, this is a loss for voters,” representatives from several of the local League of Women Voters chapters wrote in an email to the two campaigns after failing to hear from Ross or his aides.

Because Ross is returning no one’s calls, it’s hard to divine what his thought process is. The calculus for incumbents in reasonably safe seats is to limit the exposure of your opponents as a way to not give them legitimacy.

“The thinking goes, if you’re up by so much, why bother?” said University of Massachusetts Boston political science professor Erin O’Brien. “Consultants will tell their clients a debate can only hurt you. I think it’s bad advice. But the political lore is, why raise their profile by standing next to them? It’s a risk-averse strategy by an incumbent not to debate.”

The Ross-Rausch non-debate appears to be the outlier as most races have had debates or the candidates have attended the more sedate “candidates’ forums,” where there is less of a confrontational structure and audience members often ask the questions. Next door in the Second Plymouth and Bristol District, however, Sen. Michael Brady of Brockton appears not to have met his low-key opponent Republican Scott Hall in any debate or forum.

We say “appears” because there is little coverage of the race in the local media. Hall doesn’t appear to pushing too hard, with no social media presence to speak of and his campaign website a single landing page with a three-sentence declaration that he will “persevere to research the needs” of the district. For Brady, who was arrested for his second drunken driving charge this past spring, it keeps him away from questions about the incident and he doesn’t have to pay a price for refusing debates.

Out in the western part of the state, Andrea Harrington, who defeated incumbent Berkshire District Attorney Paul Caccaviello in the September Democratic primary, has declined to engage Caccaviello in any debates as he mounts a write-in campaign. But for Harrington, it is some payback for the man who was handed the job to give him an electoral leg up. Harrington pointed out there were eight debates or forums leading up to the primary but Caccaviello skipped most of them.

“The acting District Attorney didn’t think it was worth his while to attend every forum, and now he wants to sponsor his own debate,” she said in a statement to the Berkshire Eagle. “It doesn’t work that way. The people of Berkshire County benefited from the open and fair debates we have already had, and I think engaging in staged political theater will undermine what has already been a great public process.” Zing.

O’Brien says while debates are an essential part of the fabric of democracy and those paying attention are put off by candidates who decline to engage, voters overall aren’t swayed one way or the other by the encounters or the lack of them. Ross, she says, is unlikely to feel the repercussions of his refusal to debate.

“They’re not on the radar of most voters,” she said. “Voters definitely do not like it, but they don’t make candidates pay at the ballot box.”

But Attleboro Sun-Chronicle columnist and Norton Town Moderator Bill Gouveia said Ross’s refusal is endemic to the poisoned atmosphere that passes as politics these days, where serving is secondary to winning. He said a public tsk-tsking over the lack of debates should be followed up with recriminations in the voting booth.

“If voters and citizens don’t put their weight — and votes — behind it, it becomes meaningless,” he wrote. “If the public continues to elect and re-elect candidates who hide in plain sight and place their political fate above our right to judge them in a formal setting — then we all deserve the government we get. So let’s wait for Sen. Ross’s explanation. I’m sure it is coming soon. Let’s hope it is reasonable, rational, and not just another political dodge by an entrenched politician.”



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