U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith has borrowed a page from the campaign strategy of her predecessor, Thad Cochran: She is trying to avoid appearing on the same stage with her election opponents.
Cochran could get away with that in part because of his long seniority and in part because he went decades without a serious challenger. In 2014, though, his refusal to debate state Sen. Chris McDaniel during the bitterly fought Republican primary contest contributed to a perception that Cochran was way past his prime. That perception, and the tea-party fueled revolt against so-called establishment Republicans, almost cost him his final election.
Hyde-Smith, with only about five months of seniority under her belt, does not have Cochran’s longevity excuse. So she has to come up with another one for not committing to participate in two debates scheduled for next month to which she and the three other candidates in November’s special election have been invited.
The Republican says that she is not going to miss possible important votes in Washington to participate in the two debates in Mississippi, especially given the thin majority that Republicans hold in the Senate.
That is mostly a dodge. Hyde-Smith is obviously making a political calculation, as the presumed front-runner with Donald Trump’s endorsement already in the bag, that she has much more to lose than gain from debating her opponents.
Indeed, it would be potentially risky to participate in the debates. Her two main opponents — McDaniel and Democrat Mike Espy — are both lawyers, for whom debating is a skill that they have perfected as part of their occupation. But if she wants the job of U.S. senator as more than a temporary fill-in, she owes it to the voters to present a mostly unscripted version of herself, to show how she handles the pressure when she is challenged on positions she has taken in the past, and to make a persuasive case in her own words — not those written by campaign consultants — for her core political beliefs.
Debates are not the only way nor even necessarily the best way to judge a candidate’s fitness for office, but they can be helpful in comparing and contrasting the field of hopefuls and how they conduct themselves in tense and difficult circumstances.
If Hyde-Smith doesn’t show up next month, no matter what her excuse, it will convey the message that she was scared to go toe-to-toe with those who want the job as much as she does.
She may survive that judgment within the electorate, but that’s a risk she has to weigh, too.