Florida Politics

Are they camera shy? Some U.S. Senate candidates are ducking televised debates

Incumbent Republican Sen. Marco Rubio makes opening remarks during a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing about Zika in Washington, Wednesday, July 13, 2016.
Incumbent Republican Sen. Marco Rubio makes opening remarks during a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing about Zika in Washington, Wednesday, July 13, 2016. Bloomberg

More than a year into Florida’s U.S. Senate campaign, the Republicans and Democrats hoping to win the Aug. 30 primary have yet to face off in a televised debate.

U.S. Reps. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, and David Jolly, R-Belleair Bluffs, appeared in the only debate of the cycle, sponsored by the Open Debate Coalition. It was streamed online in April, and Jolly left the race in June. Candidates have intermittently shared the stage at local forums, but these interactions have been far from TV cameras.

It’s not for a lack of trying — at least with the TV and radio stations. They’ve tried to organize and broadcast debates between all the major candidates from either party. But so far, they’ve run into obstacles.

The main hurdle: the candidates themselves.

Several debate organizers said they struggled to make arrangements with two candidates in particular: Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter.

Catherine Welch, news director for Orlando public radio station WMFE, said the Murphy campaign declined to participate in an early August debate due to a scheduling issue. Before that, she said it had been “radio silence” from the campaign for several months.

Even without Murphy, Grayson and another Democratic candidate, Miami labor attorney Pam Keith, are scheduled in the Aug. 3 debate, Welch said.

Welch isn’t the only organizer saying Murphy has declined a debate. Marissa Barrow, spokeswoman for Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Murphy was invited to debate Grayson and Jolly in the Open Debate Coalition event, which they helped organize.

Murphy’s campaign contends he was never invited. Emails obtained from the Open Debate Coalition, however, show the group sent an invitation a month before the debate and followed up a second time, with Murphy’s campaign manager and communications director, two days later.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee has endorsed Grayson in the primary.

Murphy’s campaign spokeswoman, Galia Slayen, said in a statement that the campaign is confident there will be a debate before the Aug. 30 primary.

“Floridians deserve to hear the candidates’ values and vision for Florida, and Patrick looks forward to debating,” Slayen said.

Grayson said Murphy’s reluctance is alienating to voters.

“It shows that Patrick Murphy is afraid to debate and defend his positions,” Grayson said.

News 13 in Orlando canceled its Democratic debate after it couldn’t reach agreement among all the candidates by a July 8 deadline the station set.

News outlets are also having trouble organizing debates between Republican candidates Rubio and Carlos Beruff, a Bradenton homebuilder.

Mary Shedden, news director at WUSF in Tampa, said, “Rubio is not real communicative.”

And Bay News 9 abandoned its attempt after “both Rubio and Beruff had scheduling conflicts,” executive producer Michael Hardin said.

Rubio’s re-election campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Beruff spokesman Chris Hartline said the campaign is “in the process of finalizing the details with some of the organizers.”

“We look forward to the voters of Florida having the opportunity to see a stark contrast,” he said.

A lack of debates could hurt some candidates more than others, particularly those less well-known, such as Keith.

“Debates are meant to be opportunities for voters to see who the candidates are and how they match up to other candidates,” Keith said. “In the end, voters get cheated.”

And all the blame doesn’t fall on her rival candidates, Keith said. She wants TV and radio stations to put on the debates, no matter how many candidates show up.

Keith would happily take the stage by herself.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.