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Senate District 3 candidates drop out of a Tallahassee forum, signaling a tight race ahead

A political analyst says candidates refusing to participate in political forums is becoming a national trend.
James Steidl
A political analyst says candidates refusing to participate in political forums is becoming a national trend.

Two candidates running to represent the Florida Big Bend region in the state senate have dropped out of a candidates’ forum with WFSU Public Media, the Tallahassee Democrat and the League of Women Voters of Tallahassee.

Corey Simon took out a full page ad in the Tallahassee Democrat blasting the League of Women Voters for taking what the ad terms “overtly partisan” stances on issues, including gun control, abortion and school choice. The ad also served as an announcement — that Simon would not participate in the forum for this very reason.

After the ad was released, the League’s President Trish Neely sent a letter to the Tallahassee Democrat disputing Simon’s view that the League is a partisan organization.

“We’re not partisan. The Democratic Party aligns more with the League than what the Republican Party does. But that doesn’t mean that our issues are partisan. Our positions come from our grassroots, they don’t come from either party.”

The League was established in 1920 by suffragists just six months before women got the right to vote. It was founded to educate women about voting and inform them on the issues. Holding candidate forums is one of the League’s long-held traditions. And Neely says sometimes candidates aren’t interested in participating.

“And with our forums, we don’t allow them to have the notes, and they have to respond to the questions, and they don’t know what the questions are in advance. And sometimes that can be tricky for people.”

And that could present a problem for both Simon and the incumbent, Tallahassee Democratic Senator Loranne Ausley. Ausley’s campaign dropped out of the forum nearly two weeks after Simon’s newspaper ad ran, but her decision also came just days after a controversy erupted over a mailer attacking Simon that some described as “racist.” Matthew Isbell has years of experience working for Democratic campaigns. He says he can’t help but wonder if the mailer controversy has scared Ausley off from the forum.

"I can’t help but wonder that. I’m sure they probably would get asked about it, and she needs to have an answer.”

Isbell says it’s the wrong move for Ausley’s campaign to sit out the forum because it would’ve given her a chance to go after Simon for ducking out of the event. He says her campaign could’ve used the image of her sitting at the candidates’ table alone, taking questions without Simon next to her.

“And then boom, you’ve got an image for a mailer, for a text, for a digital targeting, anything. You have something. You need to sow doubt into the minds of the Democratic leaning voters of this district that ‘Yes, you like him. Yes, he’s a good guy. But do you trust him to be your state senator?”

Isbell says Ausley’s campaign has squandered that opportunity, a decision that surprised him. Conversely, Isbell says, it was the smart strategy to for Simon’s campaign to pull out of the forum. That’s partly because facing tough questions could prove risky for Simon — who needs to get some Democratic-leaning voters, while keeping rural Trump voters happy. That balancing act can be difficult when faced with questions like the one he dodged twice during a debate at the Capital City Tiger Bay Club earlier this month.

It was a question posed by his opponent — Democratic state Senator Loranne Ausley.

Ausley: Do you believe President Biden was duly elected?

Moderator: Go ahead, she wants to know what you think of the legitimacy of the election of President Biden in 2020.

Simon: The election is done. President Biden is the president and we’re worse for it.

Moderator: But do you think he was legitimately elected?


Simon: The election is done.

Moderator: OK.

Simon: President Biden is the president. And I believe we’re worse for it.

Moderator: OK. Alright.

“He’s running in a narrowly Democratic district where he needs to not cast a far-right DeSantis style message, but he also can’t risk angering right-wing rural voters out there in Taylor county and Franklin County, who are not going to like it if he says, yeah, Biden won the election totally fair.”

The candidates’ refusal to participate in debates is part of a growing trend in the U-S. A Brookings Institution report shows over the last decade the number of U-S Senate debates has steadily declined. And earlier this year the National Republican Party said it was pulling out of the Commission on Presidential Debates until adjustments were made to ensure fairness.

The trend isn’t indicative of a healthy democracy. In some cases, though, it’s a smart political strategy. And that’s the case for Simon, explains Isbell, because Simon is a more likely to stumble as a first-time candidate. Plus, Isbell says, Simon can afford not to participate. His campaign has raised more than $430,000 in campaign contributions — and he’s received significant support from the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. But unlike Simon, another Republican running for state office in Leon County isn’t getting that kind of support, and he says he will attend the forum.

“Those organizations represent a set of constituents, and the constituents need to be informed. I think the voters lose out. Democracy loses out. Maybe the only person who does not lose out is Mr. Simon.”

House District 8 Candidate Curt Bender says he sees it as his duty to speak to all constituents, even the ones who might not agree with everything he has to say. And he says he thinks Simon should do the same.

“I could completely understand how he would feel unwelcome or that he wouldn’t be treated well there. I still think it’s something he should participate in for the sake of democracy.”

Still Bender acknowledges that the forum will help him get his message out there in front of people. And unlike Simon, he says he hasn’t received support from the Florida Republican Party. Bender’s campaign has raised nearly 95-hundred dollars, and most of that is self-funded. In a heavily Democratic district, the odds are stacked very much against Bender, and any exposure at all is helpful.

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.