As one of the most high profile races in California, constituents in District 10 who are eager to see Congressional candidate Josh Harder and incumbent Rep. Jeff Denham face off in a debate before the November midterms may be disappointed. The opposing campaigns can’t seem to reach an agreement on where — and how — a debate should be hosted.
The debate chatter began on July 13, when Denham’s campaign announced that he has accepted offers from two separate locations to debate Harder, The House church in Modesto and the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau. The announcement explained that each debate would see both campaigns receive an even distribution of tickets for seating and attendance.
Harder responded to the invitation on Twitter, making it clear that he wouldn’t be attending a debate that wasn’t open to the public.
“I’m, of course, looking forward to debates,” Harder wrote. “But I’m not going to close the events off from the public just because Jeff Denham is too nervous to be around his constituents. I look forward to meeting you in a place where undecided voters have an opportunity to size us up.”
In a responding tweet, Denham explained that at the two suggested public debates, Harder’s campaign would be able to invite anyone they wanted to the event and that there would be an equal number of invites between both parties. For those who aren’t able to get their hands on a ticket, the debate would also be live streamed on the internet.
To this, Harder responded with three “simple” conditions for a debate that he doesn’t seem willing to back down from: a neutral location, a third-party moderator and an open-to-the-public event. According to Harder’s campaign manager Chelsea Brossard, the most important of the three conditions is that anyone who wants to attend a debate can do so.
“Denham implying that the debates are open to the public is absurd because they’re not,” said Brossard. “It’s one thing to have it on a live stream, which is great, but it’s also important to make sure members of the public can join, show up and be there in person.”
Denham’s campaign manager Josh Whitfield explained the reasoning behind hosting a debate as a ticketed event.
“We don’t want either side to stuff the room,” Whitfield said. “This is a high profile race, and there’s no doubt that wherever a debate is held, it’s going to sell out.”
Public forums with Republican legislators have grown contentious since President Donald Trump was elected, which Denham has experienced firsthand. A town hall event held with the Republican congressman in Turlock last year quickly grew raucous, with yells from constituents growing so loud at times that Denham was forced to remain silent on stage, waiting for a chance to speak.
Denham’s campaign would like to avoid a similar situation at a debate, said Whitfield.
“They don’t want a debate, they want a demonstration. I don’t think it’s a big secret that their side of the aisle is a little more vocal…but there’s a different culture on either side.”
Dr. Stephen R. Routh, a political science professor at Stanislaus State, said that while typically debates are open to the public, he understands the incumbent’s reticence about potentially filling a room with the opposition.
“That’s why they’ve got to set up circumstances where there aren’t overly passionate voters who will ruin it. I totally understand his concern about that,” said Routh. “It could get out of control, and the optics of that atmosphere is bad. It wouldn’t be good for Harder, either, to have his apparent supporters heckling an incumbent House member.
“It’s a debate and you’ve got to let people talk, but people get so passionate and energetic that things can get ugly, and we’ve seen that at his town halls.”
In addition to complaints about proposed ticketed debates, Brossard also expressed frustration that one debate was suggested to be held in conjunction with the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau, which endorsed Denham prior to the June primaries. Whitfield responded to the claim by stating the location is the best place to discuss farm issues and voiced his own exasperation at the Harder campaign’s inability to compromise.
“This is reaching ridiculous levels of silliness in our campaign’s opinion,” said Whitfield. “These locations are reputable organizations and major stakeholders in our district. We’d love for a debate to happen — we’ve come over halfway now and they don’t want to do it.”
Brossard said that the Harder campaign will accept an invitation to debate when all three of their conditions are met. Currently, the campaign is in talks with the League of Women Voters to schedule a nonpartisan debate, she said.
Routh said that the candidate’s inability to decide on a debate hurts not only themselves, but District 10 constituents as well.
“It would be great if they work something out so that there is a compromise, but if they’re both digging their heels into the dirt then that’s problematic for voters,” Routh said. “It’s going to be a close election, so people want to see these guys talk. It would be an absolute bloody shame if a debate doesn’t happen between them.”
While a debate between the two candidates is in question, constituents can still hear the two candidates speak about issues most important to them. The 209 Podcast spoke about the issues with Harder in April (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgA-jHKQl7g) and will speak with Denham this weekend, with the podcast episode anticipated to hit the web on Monday.