During his May 18 speech accepting the nomination as the Republican candidate for governor, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli called for 15 debates with his opponent Terry McAuliffe – 15 opportunities around the state for “real, honest debates where we can have a frank discussion about the issues that are important to Virginia and let the people decide,” Cuccinelli said.
In the weeks since, the Cuccinelli camp has persistently charged that the Democrat McAuliffe refuses to accept these debates.
But the Republican campaign has avoided mentioning that in early April, more than a month before Cuccinelli officially became the GOP nominee, McAuliffe's campaign announced the debates its candidate will be participating in.
Those include the Virginia Tech/WSLC debate, the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce/NBC-4 debate, the Virginia Bar Association debate, the League of Women Voters/AARP debate and the Radio One/Clovia Lawrence – most of which have dates still to be determined.
“Those are the five traditional debates and we're going to stick with those,” Josh Schwerin, McAuliffe's press secretary, said June 12.
Anna Nix, a spokesperson for Cuccinelli, said three out of five of those debates have yet to be agreed to by her camp. Regardless, they don't cover every region of Virginia, which is the main focus of Cuccinelli's call for 15 debates, she added.
The number of debates isn't as important as where they are held, Nix said.
“People in southwest Virginia need jobs,” Nix said, while people in Northern Virginia may be more concerned about transportation.
In sum, McAuliffe announced in April five debates he plans to engage in. In May, Cuccinelli launched the 15-debate campaign. If recent gubernatorial elections are any indication, the final result is likely to be closer to McAuliffe's pitch. In 2009 and 2005 the gubernatorial candidates partook in four debates.
Cuccinelli has agreed to the Virginia Bar Association debate to be held July 20 at The Homestead resort in Hot Springs and the Fairfax County Chamber/NBC-4 debate.
Mark Rozell, the acting dean and a professor of public policy at George Mason University, said the Cuccinelli pitch is “entirely unrealistic.”
“There will not be 15 debates,” Rozell said, noting it's “perhaps a good gimmick to put it on the other candidate to have to refuse and then appear unwilling to debate a lot.”
Nix said McAuliffe's campaign has been reluctant to agree to the guidelines to one of the two debates already set, The Homestead contest.
“[McAuliffe] will not agree to the traditional Virginia Bar Association debate rules that allow candidates to ask each other questions,” Nix noted.
Schwerin deflected those claims by saying negotiating and finalizing rules for political debates is standard practice.
The extent to which the contests – and the political publicity surrounding them – will sway voters is uncertain. Rozell said debates in state races rarely affect the outcome. Typically, they're beneficial to an underdog looking to raise his or her profile, he said.
“But there is no underdog in this campaign. Excepting a big gaffe by one candidate, it is hard to imagine a scenario where the candidate debates shift the dynamics ...” Rozell said.
This story has been updated from a previous version.