Careers can ride on down-ballot debates

Over 67 million Americans watched the first presidential debate, and 65 million watched the second, but down-ballot debates have much smaller audiences and far shorter reach -- yet they can still impact campaigns.

Where the presidential debates are prefaced by days of speculation and expectation-setting, and followed by days of spin, House and Senate debates are often more low-key affairs, and some aren’t even broadcast in full on local stations.

Some, however, in particularly politically conscious communities, can play a large role in shaping public perceptions of the candidates. In Massachusetts, 61 percent of voters polled by Western New England University had either seen or heard one of the first two debates in that state’s Senate race, and 61 percent of those who tuned in said what they saw made them more likely to vote for one candidate or another.

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In the first two debates in that race, Sen. Scott Brown (R) came out fierce on offense, berating Democrat Elizabeth Warren on taxes and often speaking directly to her or over her. 

He was criticized by Democrats following those debates for his aggressive posture. Brian McGrory, a columnist for the Boston Globe, wrote a scathing column following the first Massachusetts Senate debate attacking Brown for trying to “claw the eyes out of his opponent” that night. 

In the third debate, Brown gave a more subdued performance.

Mary Anne Marsh, a longtime Massachusetts Democratic consultant, said the debates were part of what have helped Warren hold a lead in the polls over the past few weeks.

“What we can say is both in the presidential race and in this race, it's been events -- in this case, debates -- that have changed the dynamic of the race. Warren's initial momentum came from the Democratic Convention, and I think her added momentum came from the debates,” she said.

One of Brown’s best assets has all along been his favorability in the state, but that seems to have dropped since the first debate. A Public Policy Polling survey conducted before the first matchup gave him a net favorability rating of +14; the last PPP poll, conducted just before the third debate, showed his favorability rating had been halved.

In other races, candidates who are perhaps too honest or inartful in explaining their policy positions during debates provide easy fodder for attack ads. 

Democrat Tim Kaine, running against Republican George Allen for Virginia’s open Senate seat, remarked at the candidates’ first debate that he’d be “open to a proposal that would have some minimum tax level for everyone."

Just a few days later, the comments ended up in an attack ad, where Allen slammed Kaine for “raising taxes on everyone.”

Richard Carmona, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Arizona, opened himself up to attacks from both the Club for Growth and the National Republican Senatorial Committee when he defended earmarks during his first debate, insisting that “all earmarks are not pork.”

Both groups ran ads accusing him of defending wasteful spending. It’s a position on which his opponent Rep. Jeff Flake (R) feels he has the upper hand, as Flake has been an outspoken opponent of earmarks since he entered Congress, and pushed to get a ban passed.

Carmona spokesman Andy Barr said Carmona’s comments had been taken out of context, and dismissed the earmark attacks. He said that the issue had already been debated out in the campaign, and the new attacks would be ineffectual.

“I think at this point, their attacks haven't stuck and they're desperately trying to find things to back them up,” he said.

In the candidates’ third debate, Carmona again landed himself in hot water when he told the male moderator that he’s “prettier” than Candy Crowley, the CNN reporter that moderated the last presidential debate.

The Arizona Republican Party and Flake’s campaign blasted out the comments to reporters after they were picked up by national media, with a statement from Mesa City Councilwoman Dina Higgins who called it “insensitive” and “in extremely poor judgment.” Carmona has faced accusations during the campaign that he has a bad temperament when it comes to working with women.

If candidates lose their cool during debates, they can become the focus of national media attention. 

The race between Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman for a House seat from a newly redrawn California district had already been in the spotlight as one of the nation’s most expensive. But when the two engaged in a near physical altercation during one of their debates, they became the focus of news outlets far and wide for how atypically combative their race has become.

Berman later released an ad featuring the encounter, asserting that Sherman is “unhinged” and “angry.” Sherman retains a lead in the polls just weeks out from Election Day.

Debates are useful for more than just gaffes to insert into attack ads. Kaine’s campaign turned his comments linking women’s issues to economic issues into a radio ad, and they believe his articulation of the connection will solidify his already strong lead among female voters.

For a candidate like Brown, lagging in the polls but still close enough to pull out a win in the final few weeks of the campaign, a final debate could be a make-or-break moment. Massachusetts voters will see their candidates meet for the last time on Oct. 25, just under two weeks in advance of the election. 

Brown had a memorable line during a debate in his 2010 run, where he said he was running for “the peoples’ seat,” not the seat of the late Ted Kennedy. Democrat consultant Marsh said it might take another such performance to boost Brown going into the final days of the campaign.

"It’s been events that have driven this, and there are no conventions left. So in the Massachusetts Senate race, it could come down to one debate,” she said.


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