Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz agreed Monday to one televised debate and has turned down other public forums that voters have used to hear from candidates for the state’s highest court — including a debate that has been televised statewide in every Supreme Court race for nearly 30 years.
Protasiewicz is competing in the most expensive judicial race in U.S. history, one that holds enormous implications for Wisconsin, including setting new policies related to abortion access, voting rules and the state’s legislative and congressional maps.
But she has so far agreed to one major public forum with opponent former Supreme Court Justice Dan Kelly and declined to answer questions about her candidacy at events organized by the nonpartisan Milwaukee Press Club, WisPolitics.com and Rotary Club of Milwaukee, WISN-TV, the Wisconsin chapters of the liberal-leaning American Constitution Society and the Wisconsin Justice Initiative, and the Milwaukee chapter of the conservative-leaning Federalist Society — resulting in at least two of the organizations to cancel their events…
Barry Burden, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Elections Research Center, said the growing tendency of candidates nationwide to avoid debates and forums that had been standard practice in prior years is in part due to a “fear of doing something that could become a tool used against them in a campaign ad or by sharing on social media.”
“Candidates are opting for messaging they fully control such as press releases and social media posts over unscripted activities that put them in more risk,” Burden said.
Burden said in most states, more Republican candidates avoid debates than do Democratic candidates, especially in the era of former President Donald Trump as Republicans “become leerier of traditional media and tend to grant access to outlets such as talk radio they know will treat them more favorably.”
“Wisconsin is showing a different pattern from other states in that Democratic candidates rather than Republicans have become more reticent about doing debates,” Burden said. “That might have hurt Mandela Barnes in last year’s senatorial election when a larger number of debates could have helped combat the flood of advertising criticizing him.”
Burden said Protasiewicz’s calculation could be that she believes she is the “leading candidate” heading into the April 4 election and debates and other events with uncontrolled questions could be “more likely to complicate her path to victory than provide a boost.” Protasiewicz finished first in the four-way Feb. 21 primary, picking up 46% of the vote to Kelly’s 24%.
“The absence of debates does a real disservice to voters. This is especially true in a nonpartisan spring election where the campaigns are shorter and the candidates are not as well known,” Burden said. “A large number of voters will learn about the candidates mostly through TV and Internet ads. That is problematic because ads can distort the truth and often do not deal with issues that are actually most important to the public and the office being sought.”