This article is about candidate debates — or, to be precise, candidate debates that don’t happen. Not every candidate wants the risk of confronting their opponent with all eyes upon them.
15th District congressional candidate Mary Miller has not responded to invitations to appear with her Democratic opponent, Erika Weaver, at candidate debates and forums. But the Coles County Republican says she is meeting with voters in her campaign visits throughout the district.
As part of her campaign, Miller was an unbilled speaker on a bus tour last week, organized by Restore Illinois — a political action committee launched by a group of eastern Illinois GOP lawmakers, including Miller’s husband, State Rep. Chris Miller. At the tour’s stop in Champaign, Mary Miller spoke to a friendly audience about a trip to the White House.
“So I recently returned from the Oval office, where I had the privilege of meeting with President Trump,” said Miller, to an audience that broke out in applause at mention of the president. The audience chuckled when Miller mentioned that Trump “acts exactly the same” in person as on TV.
The Facebook page for the Mary Miller campaign shows the first-time candidate at other events with friendly audiences. Besides going on the Restore Illinois tour, Miller has met with Republican groups around the 15th District, and met with coal miners employed by Hamilton County Coal. But Miller has avoided facing her Democratic opponent, Erika Weaver in a debate or forum, and has avoided the more mixed audience that would come with it. One such debate that never took place was proposed by WILL/Illinois Public Media.
IPM director of Engagement and Educational Outreach Kimberlie Kranich says the station contacted the Miller and Weaver campaigns about a possible debate but got no response from Miller, beyond assurances from a campaign aide that their debate invitation would be passed along.
“I emailed them, I made phone calls,” says Kranich. “And I got a response from Weaver. But I never did get a response from Miller, as far as having a conversation about what this debate could or might look like.”
At WEIU-TV, the public TV station at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, reporter and journalism instructor Joe Astrouski says he dropped plans for a televised candidate’s forum after the Miller campaign and other Republican candidates didn’t respond.
In Edwardsville, an online forum sponsored by local chapters of the League of Women Voters and the NAACP went ahead in September with Erika Weaver speaking — but not Mary Miller.
And a candidate’s forum hosted on the website of the Charleston Area Chamber of Commerce features a video from Weaver, but nothing from Miller.
Weaver says Miller’s refusal to meet for debates is a loss for the voters.
“Unfortunately, when my opponent doesn’t accept any of those invitations, voters are denied the opportunity to hear and compare and contrast her positions and mine, her campaign and mine, and who she is as a candidate and who I am,” says Weaver.
During her stop in Champaign, Mary Miller did not respond directly to a question on why she has avoided a debate with Weaver. But she said she’s given voters in the 15th District plenty of chances to meet her.
“Every day I’m out and about, day and night, in our district, talking to people, engaging in forums. I’m at all kinds of events,” said Miller, as she prepared to leave for the next stop on the Restore Illinois tour. “I have seen my opponent once. And there was actually a parade in Mattoon, and she was not even present in Mattoon.”
Weaver lives in Mattoon and says she missed the 4th of July parade there due to a scheduling conflict but did attend other parades nearby, in Sullivan and Oakland. And she says she’s met with voters in 22 of the 15th District’s 33 counties, either in person, by phone or online.
Meanwhile, Mary Miller’s reason for avoiding debates is obvious to John Jackson, a visiting professor with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. Jackson says it’s a common campaign tactic for a candidate in the lead, like Miller, to stay away from debates, where she could be seen making a mistake and where her opponent could gain extra exposure.
“She (Miller) thinks it’s a comfortably Republican district, and the recent past would indicate that is correct,” says Jackson. “And she doesn’t see the need, and doesn’t want to be bothered. And so she’s not going to do it. Although obviously, I don’t know her mind, but you would think that’s what’s going on with her.”
And there’s evidence that Mary Miller is indeed in the lead in the 15th District race. The district and the region has leaned Republican on a regular basis. Fivethirtyeight, the opinion poll analysis website operated by analyst Nate Silver, says Miller is “very likely” to defeat Weaver in the election, with her odds being greater than 99 out of 100.
Besides, the Miller campaign has raised a lot more money than Weaver’s campaign, according to opensecrets.org — $642,877 for Miller, compared to $56,906 for Weaver, in the most recent report.
Jackson says that in the adjacent 12th Congressional District, Republican incumbent Mike Bost has also refused to debate Democrat Ray Lenzi, in a race where Bost is also considered “very likely” to win, according to the fivethirtyeight website. Meanwhile, in the 13th District, Republican incumbent Rodney Davis and his Democratic challenger, Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, have held three broadcast debates, including one in Champaign co-produced by WILL and WCIA-TV. But the 13th District race is considered a close one; Davis only narrowly defeated Dirksen Londrigan in 2018, and fivethirtyeight says Davis is just “slightly favored” to win again this year.
But Jackson says despite her strong odds this year, Mary Miller’s decision not to debate her opponent could hurt her in the long run. Illinois will get a new Congressional District map in 2022, with the likelihood of one district being eliminated due to population declines. And the shift in boundaries could pit Miller against other, better-known Republicans in the next primary election. If that happens, Jackson says she might wish she had the experience and visibility that a debate could have given her.
Whether candidates find debates or helpful or not, voters can benefit from them.
Political science professor Brian Gaines with the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs says it’s been the conventional wisdom that debates don’t matter, at least in terms of affecting the outcome of elections. But he says they can provide moments that help voters gain insight on a candidate.
“Even if it’s heavily scripted, and they practiced their lines, and they’re determined to say what they’re going to say regardless what the questions are,” says Gaines, “there’s a chance that (the candidates) will let their guard down, and reveal something that, for better or for worse, is helpful for voters to understand what the candidate’s really thinking, what their strongest beliefs and priorities are.”
Follow Jim Meadows on Twitter: @WILLJim Meadows