Six years ago, Bill Cassidy’s opponents for a U.S. Senate seat complained that he wouldn’t participate in enough debates.
Cassidy’s opponents can’t get him to debate even once this year as he runs for re-election as a heavy favorite.
It will be the first Senate campaign in Louisiana since 1998 where the candidates didn’t debate, reported Melinda Deslatte, a veteran Baton Rouge-based scribe with the Associated Press.
“I think he is afraid and he’s ashamed of his record,” Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins, his most visible Democratic rival, said at a recent candidate forum, skipped by Cassidy, organized by the Press Club of Baton Rouge.
Cassidy did not respond to two interview requests for this article.
He told the newspaper two weeks ago that he hadn’t received a “formal invitation” for a debate. Sources with knowledge of the discussions say, however, that Nexstar Broadcasting tried to organize a debate but dropped the idea after the Cassidy campaign said the senator would appear only if all 14 other candidates also were invited, even though only four of them are actively campaigning.
An event with more than 10 candidates would be a logistical headache, especially with the need for masks and social distancing, said Dr. Richard Oberhelman, director of the Office of Global Health at Tulane University. “With that number of candidates, it would make a lot more sense to do it virtually.”
But in that scenario, no candidate would get more than a few minutes to speak. It also would limit Cassidy’s chances of committing a gaffe, the fear of any front runner.
A Cassidy campaign spokesman said that the senator missed the Press Club event – which took place only six miles from his home – for the same reason the sources said he didn’t agree to a Nexstar Broadcasting debate.
“Sen. Cassidy believes all candidates should be allowed to participate in the forum so that everyone has an equal voice. Therefore he will not be participating due to the absence of a defined selection criteria as well as the arbitrary exclusion of the majority of the field,” the spokesperson, Ty Bofferding, said in an email.
Cassidy has not attended any forums with the other candidates.
If he did, they could discuss their differences over the Affordable Care Act, President Trump's tax cuts and the proper governmental response to the coronavirus, among other issues.
Cassidy also hasn’t been inviting the press to cover campaign events, although his campaign did make him available to the media on Tuesday in Lafayette. Bofferding did not respond when asked if he could identify any other campaign events to which the media had been invited in recent weeks.
Cassidy also has not responded to a request from Jim Engster, to appear on his Louisiana Radio Network, perhaps the best-known political radio program in the state.
On Tuesday, Engster said Cassidy is running a campaign as if he were in a “witness protection program.”
Cassidy did appear last week with Newell Normand on WWL-AM in New Orleans, but only for 10 minutes, not long enough for him to take calls from listeners.
In an email, Bofferding listed 10 other interviews with Cassidy that week, including five with TV stations, four on the radio and one with a newspaper.
"Sen. Cassidy continues to travel the state listening to the people of Louisiana and takes questions from the press on a regular basis," Bofferding wrote.
To be sure, candidates throughout the country have cut back their in-person campaigning because of the coronavirus. A prominent exception is Cassidy’s close ally, President Donald Trump, who has been campaigning before big crowds nearly every day of late – and facing criticism for it.
Politico reported last week that three Republican Senate candidates in the South who are favored to win – Cassidy in Louisiana, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in Mississippi and Tommy Tuberville in Alabama – all have opted not to debate their opponents.
“Republicans are famous for not wanting to debate if the polls are showing them ahead,” said former U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat who did get then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, to debate him once in the 2010 Senate race, which Vitter won handily.
Actually, it was a Democrat, then-U.S. Sen. John Breaux, who refused to debate in 1998, the last time no debate was held in a Senate race in Louisiana.
Melancon said the public loses out when people can’t see the candidates going head to head, laying out their policy prescriptions and spelling out differences with their opponents.
“It’s Civics 101,” Melancon said. “The people deserve to know who their candidates are, what they stand for and if they stand for anything. Debates are about talking about policy, where we are and how we can move the country forward.”
Six years ago, Cassidy was a U.S. House member poised to knock off the three-term Senate Democratic incumbent, Mary Landrieu. Rob Maness, a retired Air Force colonel and Republican who was more conservative than Cassidy, also ran.
Landrieu and Maness appeared in two debates together.
Frustrated at Cassidy’s absence, Maness mounted a digital campaign aimed at shaming Cassidy into appearing. Maness even had someone dressed as a duck approach Cassidy at a campaign event and ask why he was “ducking” the debates.
Cassidy appeared at two of three debates during the campaign's final weeks.
On the night of the primary, Landrieu proposed that she and Cassidy debate six times during the runoff, once for every year in a Senate term. He agreed to only one.
Maness said he is not surprised that Cassidy is avoiding debates this year.
“I can only guess his campaign said he was ahead and didn’t need to do it,” Maness said.