Markwayne Mullin is latest frontrunner to skip debates. Here's why it's a common strategy.

U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin files for U.S. Senate in April at the state Capitol.
U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin files for U.S. Senate in April at the state Capitol.
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The Republican frontrunners in both of Oklahoma’s races for U.S. Senate seats have skipped or declined primary debates this year, leaving voters with no chance to see them engage on issues with their rivals.

Incumbent U.S. Sen. James Lankford, heavily favored to win another full term, has refused to debate challenger Jackson Lahmeyer. Lankford told The Oklahoman in March that he didn’t have any intention of giving Lahmeyer “free air time.” Lahmeyer called Lankford's refusal to debate "an insult to the voters of Oklahoma."

In the race to succeed U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, two debates have been conducted this month without U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, the frontrunner, while Mullin and former Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon skipped a forum hosted by the Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma.

In the case of the forum and the televised debate hosted by News 9 and News on 6, Mullin declined the opportunity to appear virtually or use a satellite feed. For a debate on Wednesday hosted by the State Chamber, Mullin offered to appear virtually, but the organization declined because of live-stream and other production challenges.

In an interview last week, Inhofe said, “Markwayne — the mistake he’s making, he’s kind of in hiding. He thinks he has it won so he hasn’t participated, I don’t believe, in one debate. And his numbers really haven’t moved.”

Contacted for a response, a Mullin campaign spokesperson emailed a statement nearly 200 words long, attributable to an unnamed spokesperson, and said the whole statement had to be used. The Oklahoman declined.

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Inhofe is not a neutral observer in the race to succeed him. He endorsed Luke Holland, his former chief of staff, and has appeared in his ads and helped him raise money.

In 2020, Inhofe refused to debate his Democratic opponent, Abby Broyles. Inhofe had a big lead in the polls and beat Broyles by 30 points. Early this year, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, holding a huge lead over his opponents, skipped a debate conducted by News 9 and nondoc, an online news site. He easily won reelection.

Pat McFerron, a Republican political consultant and pollster for 30 years with CHS & Associates and CMA Strategies in Oklahoma City, said there was nothing new about frontrunners skipping debates. Voters are more likely to watch debates in which the frontrunner participates, he said.

“One reason is you don’t want to bring eyeballs or interest to all of your opponents,” McFerron said. “If you’re in the lead, why do you want to give time to someone that’s behind you?

“Another reason is that you don’t want to make a mistake. It’s kind of like four corners in basketball. At some point, if you’re so far ahead, you’re playing not to lose.”

Shannon, the CEO of the Chickasaw Community Bank, in Oklahoma City, said Thursday, “Running for office is a privilege and should come at a sacrifice. I stepped away from my work of creating jobs and investing in Oklahoma small businesses at my bank because I am all in for our state.

“I respect the people of Oklahoma enough to show up and ask them for their vote. Hard work is the only way I know how to compete, and for me that starts with showing up to face voters.”

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Absence of Markwayne Mullin cited in Oklahoma Senate race debates

State Sen. Nathan Dahm, of Broken Arrow, has mentioned Mullin’s absences in debates, saying he wished the congressman had been present to respond to questions about his votes and breaking his pledge not to serve more than six years in the House. Mullin has been in the House for nearly 10 years.

In a statement read before the State Chamber debate on Wednesday, Mullin said, “Unfortunately, the congressional schedule and the Chamber schedule were both set many months ago and there was nothing we could do.”

He said, “There are scheduled votes today in Congress and I do not miss votes except for rare family emergencies.”

One of Mullin’s sons suffered a serious wrestling injury in early 2020 and required months of rehabilitation. Mullin missed 17% of House votes that year, 166 out of 954.

Last year, Mullin took advantage of the House proxy voting system instituted in response to the pandemic crisis and had a colleague vote for him 84 times; he was recorded as absent for 10 other votes, according to GovTrack. This year, he has been recorded as absent 10 times.

Mullin, whose district includes most counties in eastern Oklahoma, has not broken 40% in support in a public poll taken since he entered the race. Shannon’s support has been in the mid- to high teens, and the undecideds have been high. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, a runoff will be held on Aug. 23.

McFerron said it would be “much tougher” for a candidate in a runoff to avoid a debate.

“The challenge becomes: What does the media decide to do? Will they give the full hour to just one person?”

Pollster Jackson Lisle, a partner in Amber Integrated, of Oklahoma City, said, "In a runoff circumstance, it could change depending on how close the primary election was. However, if polling shows a significant advantage for Mullin, there isn’t much advantage to agreeing to a debate. If someone is leading by double digits, they likely have more to lose than to gain by debating."

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Markwayne Mullin skips debates during 2022 Oklahoma Senate race