Because of limited attendance, U.S. House race will highlight last debate before state conventions
FARGO – Tonight will be the last scheduled debate for candidates in North Dakota’s top races prior to the state nominating conventions in March.
But with several high-profile contenders from both parties not attending, less than half of the invited candidates will face their competition on stage.
At least one participant is calling out his opponent’s absence, prompting a campaign issue over candidates’ willingness to debate in front of their party’s base of support.
Today’s event is the second of two debate nights organized by the North Dakota Tea Party Caucus and a coalition of more than a dozen conservative-leaning organizations.
It begins with a half-hour pre-show at 6 p.m. at Fargo’s Best Western Doublewood Inn, 3333 13th Ave. S.
As with the first event in Bismarck last month, the caucus aimed to have three one-hour debates for the U.S. House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates.
But two key Republicans and all Democratic candidates have once again declined to participate, forcing a change in the debate format. Of the 15 candidates invited, nine candidates will attend, but two will address the audience unopposed.
“The North Dakota Tea Party Caucus has a mission to educate the voters to a degree never before thought of in our state. These debates are part of that mission,” caucus spokesman Perry Schumacher said. “It is regretful that those running for office would rather play politics than participate.”
Caucus leaders have designated 50 minutes for the U.S. House debate, which the libertarian and six Republican candidates in the U.S. House race have agreed to attend.
After that, the lone candidates slated to appear for the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial debates – Duane Sand and Paul Sorum, respectively – will have about a half-hour each to address the audience and take questions.
Both Sand and Sorum face an uphill battle for their party’s nomination against two well-known candidates, who party supporters expect will lead the November ticket.
U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Rick Berg and Gov. Jack Dalrymple both said they would not attend Saturday’s tea party debate, because they were focused on touring the state and locking in support from delegates who will decide the GOP endorsement next month.
But Sand has accused Berg of dodging the opportunity for a public debate in front of voters he’s seeking support from.
Sand launched an internet ad campaign this week, asking “why is Rick Berg scared of the tea party debate?”
“I believe that the average North Dakotan wants a United States Senator that has the courage of his convictions and is willing to defend his ideas before the voters,” Sand said in a message to his supporters Thursday. “If (Berg is) afraid to debate a fellow member of the Republican Party, he certainly won’t have the courage to debate the Democrat nominee.”
Campaign spokesman Chris Van Guilder said Berg has a packed schedule of public appearances from congressional stops in the Oil Patch and personally attending at least 10 district conventions this week alone.
“Rick is focused on bringing much-needed change to the U.S. Senate,” Van Guilder said. “In order to do so, he will need the support and endorsement of district delegates elected to the state convention.”
On the Democratic side, candidates cited various reasons for turning down their invitations, but some also acknowledged the presumed partisan slant of the forum’s hosts.
Gubernatorial candidate Ryan Taylor called the tea party “a clear faction of the Republican Party.”
“I see these debates … as opportunities for Republican voters to hear from those candidates seeking their endorsement,” said Taylor, a state senator from Towner, N.D.
He added that once the GOP gubernatorial candidate is chosen, “I’ll be the first to accept a debate sponsored by a balanced group of organizations to discuss the issues facing our state.”
Caucus leaders invited every candidate in the three races to participate, regardless of their party affiliation.
Schumacher expressed disappointment in the candidates who declined to attend and said the nine who are participating “have our respect.”
“We felt this was a positive way for each candidate to tell all North Dakotans why they should be elected regardless of party,” Schumacher said. “It was never intended to be partisan but rather positive. The public will have to decide how to interpret the intentions of those who are not participating.”
Among the U.S. House candidates, libertarian Eric Olson and Republicans Bette Grande, Kim Koppelman, DuWayne Hendrickson, Brian Kalk, Kevin Cramer and Shane Goettle all plan to participate in tonight’s debate.
It’ll be the fourth time since December the GOP contenders have sparred in the hopes of setting themselves apart in a hotly contested race for the party’s nomination.
The Tea Party Caucus debate is open to the public.
It will also be broadcast by the Fargo-based conservative radio station AM-1100 The Flag and televised by Midcontinent Communications and by BEK Communications, which serves south-central North Dakota.