This editorial was published by the News Tribune of Tacoma.
Governor debates are an integral part of Washington’s electoral process. Even if a matchup isn’t competitive on paper and an opponent appears out of his depth resume-wise, debates are a unique opportunity for voters around the state to see their issues addressed and for a sitting governor to have to defend his record.
Washington has a strong tradition of governor candidates debating more than once before Election Day. That tradition should continue this year, notwithstanding the coronavirus pandemic and other potential excuses in an election year rife with Old Testament style plagues.
We were pleased to see Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and Republican challenger Loren Culp agree last week to participate in a televised debate, albeit under far from ideal conditions.
Inslee, the two-term incumbent, and Culp, the police chief of the northeastern Washington town of Republic, will “meet” Oct. 7 while in separate rooms at the TVW public broadcasting studio in Olympia. The debate will air live from 8 to 9 p.m. on several Washington TV channels.
We hope it doesn’t end there. Voters should have more than one chance to see and hear the candidates make their best case to lead Washington through the arduous four years ahead.
The “virtual” debate was offered by the Washington State Debate Coalition and favored by the Inslee campaign; the Culp campaign wanted the two men to share a stage.
The event is a stark contrast to the first of three scheduled 2020 presidential debates, when President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden will meet face to face in Cleveland on Tuesday. It’s reasonable to question why Washington’s gubernatorial candidates can’t also square off in a socially distanced, limited live audience format, rather than kept apart like a pair of hothouse flowers.
But in our view, the manner of debate is less important than the number of debates.
When Inslee ran against Rob McKenna for the open seat in 2012, the two participated in five televised debates. When Inslee ran for reelection against Bill Bryant in 2016, there were at least three.
In both elections, the candidates met on both sides of the Cascades, including at an Asian-Pacific Islander summit at the Tacoma Dome, where translators relayed their remarks in several languages.
Regional issues are sure to be tackled by candidates who take their show on the road. Four years ago, for example, Inslee and Bryant sparred over Hanford cleanup and Latino voting rights in front of a Tri-Cities audience.
How can Washingtonians be confident this will happen in the sterile environment of an Olympia TV studio?
We contacted both campaigns about whether they’re open to additional debates.
Inslee spokesman James Singer said yes. “Gov. Inslee remains committed to debating his opponent and sharing his vision and addressing key issues for Washington state voters in every corner of Washington state,” Singer said.
Culp’s people were guarded. “We will have to see what happens,” said Nick Culp, deputy campaign manager. “Took Inslee’s office a long time to decide to do this one.”
Incumbents typically have nothing to gain by giving equal time to longshot challengers.
Inslee leads Culp by a daunting 53 percent to 37 percent in a new statewide KOMO-News poll. And the coronavirus outbreak has given the governor a daily unmoderated platform to show he’s in command.
In both 2016 and 2020, Inslee is the only candidate — local, state or congressional — to decline to do a joint News Tribune election endorsement interview with his opponent.
The two campaigns should agree to multiple debates because it’s the right thing to do for voters.
There won’t be a handshake or other pre-COVID courtesies. And Inslee vs. Culp certainly won’t go down in history with the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. But both sides should overcome any petty logistical disagreements and fill out the schedule.