During a taped segment Friday with local KARK-4 reporter David Goins
, NBC's Meet the Press host Chuck Todd
suggested that the two co-host a debate between Senate candidates Tom Cotton
and Mark Pryor
, with Todd suggesting that he would come down to Little Rock for the event.
KARK wasted no time pouncing on the opportunity to host a big-ticket event, announcing they would send out formal invitations to the candidates by the end of the day. Almost like it was planned!
According to a story on the station's website
, "The debate would be moderated by Todd and Goins in a table format that would allow the candidates to directly engage each other. Time limits will be flexible and managed by the moderators." The debate would be open to any topics.
Team Cotton wasted no time accepting, tweeting out within minutes
, "Count me in!"
The Pryor camp was non-committal, Goins reported Friday afternoon
. Pryor's deputy campaign manager sent the station a statement without mentioning the potential KARK debate: "We have agreed to two debates — one of which Tom Cotton still has not accepted after months of stalling — because Arkansans deserve to hear why he promised to protect special tax breaks for billionaires that ship our jobs overseas."
Predictably, Cotton's campaign is giving Pryor grief. Cotton is willing to sit down and debate the issues, they say. Why won't Pryor? Yet another tedious debate over debates. But if Pryor is hoping to sit this one out for whatever reason, his bigger problem isn't taunting from Cotton, it's KARK. The station is giving the hard sell, which puts Pryor in a corner.
Here's KARK News Director Austin Kellerman:
This debate would be open to all topics and provide more time to allow voters to hear directly from the major party candidates on the key issues. With everything happening on the national political scene, we appreciate Chuck taking note of this crucial race and making it a priority. It's certainly a priority to Nexstar's Arkansas stations.
Kellerman, who said the deadline to accept is 5 p.m. Wednesday, also put out this image on social media, which doesn't exactly look great for the Pryor campaign:
Various local KARK reporters are also putting the pressure on, on social media and on their broadcasts. And here's Todd himself:
I think the lack of debate and the lack of back and forth. ... At the end of the day, let's sit down at the table, let's hear what the real differences are. ... Let's hear Mark Pryor and Tom Cotton go back and forth on the Farm Bill, which of course we know is something they disagree on, or about the future of Medicaid expansion, or about health care in general. Let's hear those discussions back and forth between the two of them. ... Let's see them sit down and have a debate.
I think you owe it to the viewers. Especially now since so much has been spent on TV advertising, frankly that I think is turning people off, about the only chance you have to reengage people that feel turned off by politics is sitting down together and having a conversation about it.
KARK (with help from national NBC) is looking out for themselves here. The station had previously put out an offer that the Pryor camp had passed on. Naturally, KARK wants to host a debate in this big-ticket race (that's true both of the institution and of the individuals whose careers can benefit from a high-profile event with national interest). In this case, the best way to get their big-ticket item is to try to put Pryor on the spot with some splashy publicity from the host of Meet the Press. While it's slightly unseemly for the station to inject itself into the story if it hopes to be an unbiased referee, it's perfectly reasonable for the media to push for more debates and forums for the candidates to present themselves to the public. Public discourse is a good thing and by my lights, Pryor should accept this debate (as Cotton should go ahead and accept the AETN debate in Conway). Doesn't sound like that's all that likely.
Pryor and Cotton have already agreed to a one-on-one debate moderated by Roby Brock and hosted by the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce. Pryor has agreed to a second debate, hosted by AETN, which also includes the Green and Libertarian candidates. Cotton has thus far not been willing to sign on to the AETN debate, but has agreed to other debates which Pryor passed on.
For whatever strategic reason, the Pryor campaign appears to believe that their best bet is two debates, the Chamber debate and the AETN debate. But there's really no way for Pryor to skip out on this KARK debate without looking a bit shabby. No one thinks Todd or Goins would be biased, so it just looks like they're dodging, regardless of the inside baseball dynamics behind the scenes (of course they'd say the same of Cotton and AETN).
In the grand scheme of things, most voters probably tune out the debate over debates, and this will just be more noise, but I'd say the the active lobbying of a local station, plus Chuck Todd, makes this affair a loser for the Pryor camp.
A reminder that Pryor and Cotton are welcome to come to the Arkansas Times podcast any time! UNLESS THEY'RE CHICKEN! To paraphrase Chuck Todd, I think you owe it to the listeners.
We can't promise Chuck, but I'll offer beer.