The tiny town of St. Francis at the juncture of two rivers on Maine’s northern border seems far removed from the state’s partisan clashes — but it’s not.

When Democrat Troy Jackson of Allagash spotted his Republican opponent for the 1st District state Senate seat getting out of his car there recently, he hustled to confront him about his refusal to participate in any debates.

Pressed for a response, his challenger blurted out that “It ain’t up to me” and that he was simply doing what he was told, a response that spurred politicians across Maine to argue about whether the GOP is dodging debates or not.

Citing other examples as well, Democrats charge that opposition leaders ordered candidates in close contests to lie low, an increasingly common tactic in many states.

Republicans, who deny any coordinated effort to avoid debates, are struggling to keep their grip on the state Senate, where the party holds 20 of 35 seats. Democrats hope that a big turnout on Nov. 8 will propel more of its candidates into office and flip control of the Senate.

Jason Savage, the state GOP’s executive director, said individual candidates make their own decisions about what to participate in based on their schedules and personal assessments of how best to spend their time. He said the party’s leadership isn’t pushing them on the issue.

Democrats, though, said there’s no other reasonable explanation for the comments caught on camera by Jackson’s opponent, Timothy Guerrette.

Jackson, a former senator who wants to reclaim his old seat, said that GOP candidates in the past “would never debate” him so he started early to try to arrange for events that would draw everyone. He thought they were all set, including one slated for television broadcast, a rarity for legislative contests.

But, he said, Republicans “pulled out of all of them” a month ago.

So when Jackson spotted foe Timothy Guerrette in St. Francis, he decided to ask him about it — after first making sure his cellphone could capture the conversation. He provided the recording to the Sun Journal.

Challenged by Jackson for an explanation, Guerrette told him the decision “ain’t up to me” and declared he was “doing what I’m told” about skipping debates.

Charlie Webster, a former state GOP chairman from Farmington, said he heard from Guerrette that Jackson assailed him from out of the blue as he stepped from his car, getting “within 4 inches of his face and yelling.”

“It kind of shocked the guy,” Webster said.

Jackson “is a bully who thrives on this type of politics,” Savage said.

Guerrette, a Caribou city council member who couldn’t be reached for comment, said on the recording he didn’t want to talk about who told him to avoid debates.

But Jackson said he’s sure his opponent took orders from Webster and Sen. Andre Cushing, the assistant Republican leader from Hampden.

Cushing couldn’t be reached, but Webster scoffed at the allegation. He said Guerrette has his own campaign team and doesn’t take orders anyway.

Webster added, though, that if he were in Guerrette’s shoes, “I wouldn’t debate the guy either” because Jackson is “unhinged.”

On Tuesday, Jackson showed up at a Guerrette campaign event in Ashland and tried again to share the spotlight with his GOP challenger who had rented a school and provided refreshments for a meet-and-greet with residents.

“I’ve never seen anything like that happen before,” said state Sen. Peter Edgecomb, a Republican who is not seeking re-election. He said Jackson’s attempt to horn in on the event made everyone uncomfortable.

“Maybe Troy just needs to step back, take a deep breath and think about what it means to act like an adult,” Savage said.

During a previous stint in the Senate, Webster said, Jackson stood out as “the one most apt to go off into Never-never Land.”

For Jackson, it’s inexplicable that candidates would dodge debates.

“It’s just incredible they would do that,” he said.

What’s more, Jackson said, “It’s going on all over the place.”

But it’s not just Republicans who are skipping debates.

In Colorado, for example, Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennett, who’s expected to win re-election easily, passed up a television debate against his challenger, only the second time in decades that an incumbent refused to participate. The first time came two years ago, when U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, another Democrat, declined the opportunity.

In Cleveland, Ohio, this fall, every member of Congress whose district includes a portion of Cuyahoga County turned down a request from the City Club of Cleveland to participate in its traditional debates. They’d already rejected attending any of the candidate forums organized by the League of Women Voters of Greater Cleveland.

In Maine, however, it appears Republicans are most wary of sharing a stage with their political foes this year.

BJ McCollister, director of the Maine Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, said there is “clearly some sort of directive” from GOP leaders telling candidates in hot races to avoid public debates and forums.

“That’s kind of a laughable, absurd conclusion for BJ to come to,” Savage said.

He said Republican contenders are blowing off even the most longstanding events in their quest to stay out of the spotlight, including Scott Cyrway in the 16th District, Ricky Long in the 2nd District and Senate President Mike Thibodeau in the 11th District.

“This is a story that has to be told,”  McCollister said. “This is absolutely unacceptable.”

McCollister said the Republicans “want to run smear campaigns against our candidates” and avoid any venue where voters could see for themselves which political hopefuls are being truthful.

Jackson, a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2018, said Democrats seek out debates because they offer the possibility of countering a barrage of what he insisted is negative, inaccurate information from GOP candidates and operatives.

“You can’t set the record straight because they won’t be in the room with you,” Jackson said. “You can never get ’em in an open forum.”

Savage said it is “absolutely inappropriate” for Democrats to accuse other people of smearing opponents given their own record. He said at least when the GOP uses harsh tactics “we own it” and don’t pretend otherwise.

“C’mon, BJ and the Democrats — man up,” Savage said.

Jackson said it is unbelievable that contenders for political office dodge forums.

“That’s what legislators do,” he said. “They debate issues.”

“To say that you are just ‘doing what I am told’ by Augusta big money handlers is exactly what this state doesn’t need,” Jackson said. “They have had it their way for far too long and it is the reason that there is so much anger and frustration in this country.”

Despite some high visibility refusals to participate in debates, there have still been plenty of local legislative forums across the state in which candidates from both sides have taken part.

The League of Women Voters, which has sponsored debates for generations, said that candidates who participate in them “help voters understand who they are and what they stand for.”

But with an increasingly divided electorate and an array of new alternatives, perhaps it’s no longer the best way, at least for some office-seekers.

It’s tough to find research on the issue — political scientists tend to focus on more rarified levels of politics — but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence across the country that America’s long tradition of putting both candidates in front of a crowd to argue the issues is fading.

In Kentucky, for example, the League of Women Voters of Lexington last month pulled the plug on most of its candidate forums “because one person in each race — usually the incumbent — would not participate,” according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

There are many possible reasons, insiders said, but chief among them is the perception that social media offers a more efficient and less risky way for a candidate to reach voters.

With their own social media outreach and old-fashioned mailers, political hopefuls can control their message much more than they can at a debate where it’s all too easy to say something clumsy and find those “gotcha moments” shared widely among the electorate.

It doesn’t appear that either party is to blame. Both Republicans and Democrats are dodging debates that were once almost mandatory in many locales.

Veteran journalist Judy Woodruff noted in 2010, for example, that “candidates with serious opponents” were “more often observed ducking debates, withholding schedules ’til the last possible minute, and holding few mega-events” than they once did.

“They mostly face the public through their paid TV advertising and the odd YouTube video,” the PBS NewsHour co-anchor wrote in a column about the changing political landscape.

Some insiders also wonder if the value of political debates has diminished because candidates tend to be more partisan than they used to be, making it more likely that any given contender simply aligns with his party’s agenda. As a result, debates may not shed as much light on their differences as they once did.

Even so, debates must still mean something or candidates and party leaders wouldn’t be arguing about them.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: