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Here’s something you don’t see every day in politics. A candidate trailing in the polls declining to debate the front-runner.
Yet, this is what is happening in the attorney general’s race, where Republican nominee Tom Leonard has declined three oneon-one debate invitations with Democratic nominee Dana Nessel.
The final opportunity came and went Monday when the Leonard camp passed on an Oct. 30 debate invitation from the Michigan Press Association and MIRS.
Attempts to generate debates on WKAR’s “Off The Record,” with Tim Skubick, and WDIV’s “Flashpoint,” with Devin Scillian, each fell apart after Leonard declined to appear without independent candidate Chris Graveline, who is hovering between 0 and 2 percent in the polls.
Leonard cited an evening conflict as the reason for declining the debate, to which Nessel said she would clear her calendar to meet the House speaker at any time Oct. 30.
“I am willing and eager to debate Tom Leonard head-to-head to give voters an opportunity to hear about the serious issues facing our state,” Nessel said. “Tom is spending millions of dollars on ads falsely distorting my record but won’t agree to spend two hours on stage beside me defending his own. Tom, I ask you to join me on the debate stage so that Michiganders can learn about your career of pay-to-play politics and lack of legal experience.”
But Leonard is sticking to his guns that he wants “the second Democrat” on the stage at the same time or nothing at all.
“Debates will also give the people of this state the opportunity to see whether either of my two Democrat opponents are as equally prepared for the office,” he said in a Sept. 18 press release.
The reference is to Graveline, the former assistant U.S. attorney who hopped into the race after Nessel won the Michigan Democratic Party’s endorsement in April. The independent didn’t get the required 30,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot. Instead, a federal judge put Graveline on the ballot, ruling the state’s signatures threshold for independent candidates was too high.
However, his late entrance in the race, tiny political base and scant funds have not made him a legitimate contender. Mitchell Research and Communications’ last poll had him at 2 percent, the same as Taxpayer Party candidate Gerald Van Sickle and 7 points behind Libertarian Lisa Gioia, neither of whom are registered State Bar of Michigan members. Nessel was up 34 to 33 percent, well within the margin of error. A September MIRS/ Target Insyght poll had Nessel up nine points.
Leonard has tried using Graveline to reopen old wounds. The progressive Nessel beat union-backed Patrick Miles, President Barack Obama’s former U.S. attorney in West Michigan, at the Democratic convention, and many Democrats still wish it were Miles, not Nessel, on the ballot.
Leonard’s math is simple. More votes for Graveline equals fewer votes for Nessel. The more exposure Graveline gets, the better for Leonard. Graveline’s team lobbied hard for the event, too, flooding the general email box at MIRS with 150 messages lobbying for a Graveline debate appearance.
But the Michigan Press Association, MIRS, Skubick and Scillian weren’t interested in a three-way or five-way debate with candidates who hadn’t put themselves in a position to win a few weeks out from the election.
So Leonard stuck to his guns. He’s out. The decision is costing him the opportunity to highlight the political gulf between him and Nessel.
Democrats aren’t offering a more progressive candidate statewide than Nessel, who received national attention last year when she said women on a statewide ticket is an asset because they won’t “show their penis in a professional setting.”
Likewise, Leonard, of DeWitt, is the most conservative Republican on the statewide ticket. His recent campaign appearance in Pontiac featured John James, Kid Rock, Ted Nugent and Donald Trump Jr. He’s one of only two General Election candidates appearing on any ballot to fill out a questionnaire from “Secure Michigan,” dubbed an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Not debating Nessel limits Leonard’s ability to bring up the constant churn at Nessel’s campaign office amid accusations of a “toxic” and “chaotic” work environment. At least 20 staffers have moved in and out of the Nessel campaign since she launched her bid 14 months ago.
She’s on her fifth campaign manager and seventh campaign spokesperson. Most recently, Nessel threatened a former fundraiser, attorney Maggie Lourdes, with a personal protection order if she didn’t stop contacting her on her personal email and phone.
Nobody wanted to share what promised to be a colorful exchange between the two more than the media, which spent countless hours over the last several weeks to pull off this hoped-for exchange. But, alas, it will not happen.
(Melinn, of the Capitol news service MIRS, is firstname.lastname@example.org.)