Callaghan: Underdog goes over top to land debate with Cantwell

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

I've always thought it a risky strategy for a candidate to debate an empty chair. I thought this even before Clint Eastwood's performance at the Republican National Convention.

It usually happens when a challenger thinks the incumbent is dodging them. They find a sympathetic audience and stand or sit next to an unfilled seat marked with the incumbent's name. That's what Michael Baumgartner promises to do in his effort to get U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell to agree to debate him.

Baumgartner has even taken the format a step further. He's not just talking to an empty chair; apparently, it answers back. "Empty chair accepts invitation to debate Michael Baumgartner," read the recent news release from his campaign.

An empty chair that answers back only makes the risk even worse. What if the chair wins, kind of like Eastwood's chair did?

I'm interested in Baumgartner's debate over debates because I agree with the underlying point, that no matter how uncompetitive an election is, the incumbent should meet the challenger face to face. This isn't out of some duty to the challenger but out of a duty to the voters.

I think of the time in 1992 that I went over to Spokane to watch then-U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley campaign for re-election. Foley was one of the nation's most powerful men and was leading an institution that was much maligned for being out of touch and over-pampered.

But Foley did what he'd done since first winning in 1964. He accepted as many speaking requests as he could in the sprawling far-Eastern Washington district. And if his opponent showed up, he debated him, time and time again. That contradicts the common campaign wisdom that a candidate with the lead only hurts his or her chances by debating a rival.

Embracing the F-Baum

Cantwell is an overwhelming favorite. In fact, Baumgartner might be the weakest challenger to a sitting Washington senator since TV commentator Lloyd Cooney faced off against Henry "Scoop" Jackson in 1982. This isn't Baumgartner's fault. He was willing to step up when better-situated and better-known Republicans took a powder. Cantwell took 56 percent of the vote in the primary; Baumgartner 30 percent. She even won his home county of Spokane, and few are paying much attention to this race.

So Baumgartner has to do a lot to get noticed, such as sending an email to a reporter for a Seattle politics blog telling him to Go F Himself. Only he didn't type "F."

At first his campaign apologized. But then Baumgartner decided to embrace the email, to unapologize and say Publicola's Josh Feit somehow deserved it because he wasn't paying enough attention to Baumgartner's top issue — ending the war in Afghanistan.

Rather than diminish an already diminished campaign, the F-Baum Incident triggered some sympathetic press coverage when any coverage at all would have been welcome. And Baumgartner surely realized that he needed to go gonzo to get more.

"Voters deserve better than 60-second fairy tales," Baumgartner wrote in a sarcastic letter to Cantwell, referring to her TV ads. Despite his demands, Baumgartner says he's not heard from Cantwell or her campaign, which is certainly surprising given the professional tone of his letter.

Does that mean Cantwell is dodging him? Her campaign staff asserts that she plans to meet Baumgartner in debates but will not agree to specific dates from specific sponsors until she knows the post-convention schedule in the Senate.

"We're going to debate," said Cantwell campaign spokesman Kelly Steele. "During September we are looking at debates and community forums when we know she's back from D.C."

"I'll believe it when I see it," said Baumgartner spokeswoman Jami Herring. "It's been a month (since the primary) and we still haven't seen it."

In the meantime, maybe Baumgartner can practice on that empty chair.