Profiles in Cowardice: Republicans Dodge Debates as Midterms Approach

From coast to coast, Republicans are refusing to debate their Democratic opponents. A race-by-race rundown of the most egregious cases of debate-dodging.

Cover art by Jessica Iraci (modified by DemWritePress). Find more of Jessica’s art here


The holding of public debates between candidates is a time-honored tradition in this country, but of course in the Trump era many of our traditions are collapsing under the weight of cynicism and corruption. So, too with debating: dozens of high-profile Republican incumbents and even some first-time GOP candidates are brazenly ignoring or deflecting calls to debate in open, public & unscripted forums before their own constituents. Rohrabacher. Nunes. Jordan. Walden. Brady. McCaul. The list is extensive.

Democrats aren’t giving up without a fight, however. Here is a race-by-race breakdown of some of the most high-profile and egregious instances of GOP debate dodging.

 

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Indiana 9th: Trey Hollingsworth vs. Liz Watson

On August 28th of this year, Democrat Liz Watson entered a community forum in Franklin, a small Southern Indiana city nestled within the 9th Congressional District where Watson is vying for the US House seat currently occupied by first-term Republican Trey Hollingsworth. The healthcare-focused forum was being hosted by a group of community organizations, including If It Was Your Child, an outfit trying to raise awareness about the disproportionately high rates of childhood cancer in their community, which has endured decades of industrial contamination.

Watson, upon receiving the invitation to the forum, “didn’t hesitate to accept.” But Hollingsworth? He was busy. Below is a photo of Hollingsworth walking into Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Indianapolis for a fundraiser…at the exact same time that Watson was walking into that community forum:

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That’s a fairly brazen move for a first-term Congressman. Who is this guy, and why doesn’t he think he needs to appear before his constituents?

Well, after earning a substantial fortune in the industrial real estate business, Trey Hollingsworth parachuted into Indiana from Tennessee in 2015 and proceeded to spend $3M of his own money (fortified by $1.5M from a PAC associated with his father) to effectively buy the 2016 IN-09 District election. He is now the 12th wealthiest lawmaker in Washington, and stands to save over $4.5M from the GOP Tax Cuts passed in 2017.

By contrast, Indiana’s 9th is a largely working-class district. In Johnson County, where the healthcare forum was being held, the average wage is $46,644 per year (in contrast to the national average of $68,116). The 9th District has also been plagued by opioid addiction, and its communities have struggled as the nation has shifted from an industrial- to a knowledge-based economy over the past several decades.

Hollingsworth appears to be avoiding engagement at all costs. After Watson won the Democratic nomination in May, her campaign challenged Hollingsworth to 13 debates across 13 counties. Since then, the Watson campaign has offered 11 specific dates for formal debates, without receiving a single response. Hollingsworth has also been offered debate/forum joint appearances by a dozen groups across the district, including the League of Women Voters in multiple counties, local papers, Chambers of Commerce and non-partisan healthcare groups.

Radio silence.

Says Watson, “Hollingsworth voted to take away health insurance from hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers without meeting with us first. Now he won’t even come to Franklin to talk to families. He won’t talk to the families affected by childhood cancers who desperately need the EPA’s help. He won’t come to explain the tens of thousands of dollars he took from the health insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies. And he won’t show up to explain his votes to sabotage the Affordable Care Act and raise our health care costs by more than $2,000 per family, next year alone. Trey Hollingsworth prefers meeting with wealthy donors to talking to voters. I can see why. He doesn’t care about us. He’s not one of us. And he’s turned his back on us.”

Trey Hollingsworth prefers meeting with wealthy donors to talking to voters. I can see why. He doesn’t care about us. He’s not one of us. And he’s turned his back on us.

Liz Watson (D), IN-09

 

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Ohio 4th: Jim Jordan vs. Janet Garrett

OH04 map.jpgYou might say Jim Jordan is acting like a chicken, but “duck” could be more appropriate given the ridiculously gerrymandered shape of the OH-04 district, which sprawls awkwardly across north-central Ohio. With early voting starting on October 10th, Democrat Janet Garrett’s campaign reached out to set up a series of five debates – one in each of the media markets that the district crosses.

Jordan denied all of them.

Instead, he agreed to a single televised event at the end of the early voting period (and after a substantial portion of the population will have already cast their ballots), where no press will be allowed and questions will be sent to candidates a week in advance.

How does a politician get to the point where he feels the most basic electoral obligation no longer applies to him? Jim Jordan wants to be Speaker of the House, but can’t be bothered to talk to his constituents before they vote.

Janet Garrett (D), OH-04

 

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California 48th: Dana Rohrabacher vs. Harley Rouda

Dana Rohrabacher has gained infamy during the 115th Congress as “Putin’s Favorite Congressman” and for his close ties to Julian Assange/Wikileaks – which may make him uniquely vulnerable in 2018. Will Rohrabacher stand before his constituents and explain his record on Russia? Will he debate?

He has made declarations in the past insisting that he always debates his Congressional opponents. For example, back in 2014 he tweeted this (or, at least an intern did):

Yet, in 2018 – when Rohrabacher is facing by far the most potent challenge of his political career – he can’t be bothered to even respond to Democrat Harley Rouda’s clear challenge. Rohrabacher’s lack of engagement is so complete, in fact, that Rouda started using the tongue-in-cheek hashtag “#DebateMeDana”:

Where is that brazen Congressman from years past? There is (so far) no indication that Rohrabacher will  give the voters of California’s 48th the opportunity to see their candidates side-by-side in a genuine debate of ideas.

“It is deeply troubling,” says Rouda, “that Dana refuses to discuss critical issues on the debate stage. Voters have a right to know where candidates stand. Debates are a time-honored hallmark of our democracy that highlight important differences between candidates and help voters decide how to secure a better future for themselves and their families. I am ready to take on Rohrabacher in a fair, public debate whenever, wherever – because I believe that elected leaders are supposed to work for the people, not fend them off.”

I am ready to take on Rohrabacher in a fair, public debate whenever, wherever – because I believe that elected leaders are supposed to work for the people.

Harley Rouda (D), CA-48

 

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Illinois 6th: Peter Roskam vs. Sean Casten

Unlike some of these other races, incumbent Republican Peter Roskam and his Democratic challenger Sean Casten have actually debated four times. However, these debates have all been set outside of the Sixth Congressional District of Illinois, and only once in front of a live audience. The most recent debate was with a local newspaper’s editorial board; the editorial board offered to hold the meeting in public, but Peter Roskam refused.

Protesting_Illinois_6th_District_Republican_Congressman_Peter_Roskam_Chicago_Illinois_7-26-18_2850_(43667657511).jpgTo date, Peter Roskam has refused to debate Sean Casten in front of the voters of their district – including when he opted out of the League of Women Voters forum this year. Roskam has an established record of hiding from his constituents: he hasn’t held a public town hall in over ten years. His efforts to avoid the people he represents are well documented: Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Kos, CBS.

“Debates are healthy and important for our democracy, and voters demand them because they want to attend and participate, but just like his refusal to hold a town meeting for more than ten years, Peter Roskam is refusing to debate in the very district he represents.”, said Casten. “Forcing voters to travel 30 miles to downtown Chicago and pay for a ticket to hear us debate is anathema to a fair and open dialogue. Peter Roskam should stop ducking his constituents and show the courage to face voters. To borrow from Harry Truman, if Peter can’t stand the heat he should get out of the House.”

Peter Roskam should stop ducking his constituents and show the courage to face voters. To borrow from Harry Truman, if Peter can’t stand the heat he should get out of the House.

Sean Casten (D), IL-06

 

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California 22nd: Devin Nunes vs. Andrew Janz

Devin Nunes has served this largely rural Central Valley district as Congressman since 2002. Over the last 16 years, Nunes has risen through the ranks to become chair of the House Intelligence Committee – a post that’s given him a lot of exposure, as Nunes did everything he could to botch and undermine the House Intel investigation into Russian election interference.

The fact that Nunes’ Democratic opponent, Andrew Janz, is a Deputy District Attorney in Fresno and an accomplished prosecutor could be a factor in his complete avoidance of public debate during the 2018 cycle.

Janz has publicly asked Devin Nunes to debate “on numerous occasions.” Local media outlets including FOX KMPH, KSEE24, BWOPA – Fresno City College , and League of Women Voters have all asked Devin Nunes to debate Janz. Nunes has not responded to any of them. His constituents, however, have made it clear that they expect more transparency and courage from their Congressman, via multiple Letters to the Editor like those here, here & here.

Untitled.pngFrom Peggy Gray of Clovis, CA: “Nunes’ standpoint on immigration? Silence! His standpoint on significant Valley tariffs? Silence! His standpoint on the travesty of families being torn apart at the border? Silence! His willingness to discuss issues with his opponent, Andrew Janz, via a debate? Silence! His last town hall meeting for his constituents, 2010. What is he really doing for CA-22? I have heard a complaint blaming the CA Democrats for the lack of Nunes’ accomplishments. He is accountable. Vote him out.”

Janz shares Peggy’s frustration: “The people of California’s 22nd Congressional District deserve to hear where their candidates stand on the issues and how they will serve the community. So far I have been approached by 5 different media and community organizations about participating in a debate and have agreed to them all. We have only heard silence from Devin Nunes and his team. I call on my opponent and my current Representative to give the public the chance to compare our policies and make up their own mind. We have real problems here in the Central Valley and the voters deserve an honest conversation from both of us.”

So far I have been approached by 5 different media and community organizations about participating in a debate and have agreed to them all. We have only heard silence from Devin Nunes and his team.

Andrew Janz (D), CA-22

 

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Oregon 2nd: Greg Walden vs. Jamie McLeod-Skinner

Republican Greg Walden received a direct and very public invitation to debate his Democratic opponent Jamie McLeod-Skinner at this summer’s Chief Joseph Days Parade in Joseph, Oregon:

She followed up the in-person invite with a written invite that she personally hand-delivered to Walden’s campaign headquarters in Bend, Oregon. “I enjoyed meeting Congressman Walden and his wife at the Chief Joseph Days Parade,” said McLeod-Skinner via a July press release. “I’m pleased Representative Walden agreed to debate me. I believe the voters of our district deserve to hear us debate the important issues affecting their lives — including healthcare, education, public land management, and economic development.”

But, as his Eastern Oregon constituents have grown fond of asking: “Where’s Walden?” He has given no further sign of an intent to debate his opponent.

The Editorial Board of the Baker City Herald chimed in on September 10th, having waited nearly two months for Walden’s office to follow through on scheduling at least one of the three debates proposed by McLeod-Skinner: “The issue here isn’t about whether Walden or McLeod-Skinner would benefit more from debates — it’s about how voters in the 2nd Congressional District would benefit. Debates offer voters a unique opportunity to listen to, watch, and, depending on the format, even pose questions to candidates. Speeches and candidate questionnaires and sometimes even advertisements can be useful, too. But only in face-to-face debates can we see how candidates react to spontaneous questions — and to each other’s answers.”

So why is Walden hiding in the shadows? It may have something to do with the fact that he is one of the chief architects of GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and roll back coverage for people with pre-existing conditions: not exactly a popular decision this election season.

Says McLeod-Skinner: “Voters have the right and deserve to hear what their candidates think. If you’re running for office, you need to show up, you need to earn people’s votes. We’re hearing more and more people getting frustrated with his lack of availability. I think it’s been over 500 days since he’s held an actual open Town Hall. No one seems to be able to get a hold of Greg Walden these days.”

We’re hearing more and more people getting frustrated with his lack of availability. I think it’s been over 500 days since he’s held an actual open Town Hall. No one seems to be able to get a hold of Greg Walden these days.

Jamie McLeod-Skinner (D), OR-02

 

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Alabama 5th: Mo Brooks vs. Peter Joffrion

Mo Brooks, a prominent member of the House Freedom Caucus, has represented this North Alabama since he rode the tea party wave into Congress in 2010. Since then, he has developed a tendency to avoid public forums where opposing ideas might be entertained. According to Brooks’ Democratic opponent Peter Joffrion in a recent interview, “Avoiding his constituents has worked for my opponent in the past, but the threats to his incumbency are gaining traction.”

Perhaps the Congressman knows that a challenger like Joffrion would bring up Brooks’ strong support for Trump’s Space Force farce, for GOP attempts to repeal the ACA, or for giving huge tax cuts to the richest Americans at the expense of his constituents. Joffrion is undoubtedly the strongest challenger that Brooks has faced since joining Congress – the DCCC has elevated AL-05 to its Majority Makers list.

Over 50 days ago, Joffrion challenged Brooks to a series of debates, but has not gotten any response:

My opponent has a track record of avoiding his constituents and only engaging like-minded voters in safe spaces that insulate him from criticism,” Joffrion said. “Mo Brooks has shown that he would rather grandstand on cable news than engage in meaningful conversations about the issues that matter most to the people of North Alabama.”

Mo Brooks has shown that he would rather grandstand on cable news than engage in meaningful conversations about the issues that matter most to the people of North Alabama.

Peter Joffrion (D), AL-05

 

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Michigan 2nd: Bill Huizenga vs. Rob Davidson

On August 27th, Democrat Rob Davidson stood outside of Rep. Bill Huizenga’s campaign office in Grandville, and challenged the incumbent to a series of seven debates: one in each West Michigan county touched by the 2nd Congressional District. The first debate was to occur on Monday, September 10th. Huizenga declined to participate.

Why? Well, golf of course:

“Congressman Bill Huizenga was 14 minutes away from our proposed debate location, yet he chose to go golfing instead of engaging with his own constituents,” Davidson said. “West Michigan families have been asking Congressman Huizenga to show up and listen to their concerns. Real leaders face challenges head on, not hide at their country club.

Voters want debates, not delay tactics,” Davidson continued. “Families want the two choices on Election Day to answer questions about the issues, head to head, and what they’re getting from Congressman Bill Huizenga is a politician trying to run out the clock so he doesn’t have to face them. Congressman Huizenga has refused to do a town hall in more than a year and he’s avoiding his constituents. Let’s have these debates, present where we stand on the issues and help voters better understand the choices they face on Nov. 6.”

Congressman Bill Huizenga was 14 minutes away from our proposed debate location, yet he chose to go golfing instead of engaging with his own constituents. Real leaders face challenges head on, not hide at their country club.

Rob Davidson (D), MI-02

 

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Washington 3rd: Jaime Herrera Buetler vs. Carolyn Long

Carolyn Long has made it her mission to contrast herself from incumbent Jaime Herrera Buetler, who has not held an in-person town hall in years, by holding over three dozen forums herself across the expansive district since she announced her candidacy. Herrera Buetler refuses to formally debate Long in person, aside from a few forums in very small venues and very controlled circumstances, in very red small towns.

Untitled2.pngThe League of Women Voters of Clark County invited Long and Herrera Buetler to a debate in the district’s largest city of Vancouver in mid-October. But the LWVCC cancelled the event this week – not because Herrera Buetler had turned down the opportunity, but because she never responded at all. In fact, the League heard of the Congresswoman’s intent not to participate when they read it in the Columbian newspaper. “My experience has been that most congressional politicians want to be available to their constituents and know how to handle different situations,” said Judy Hudson of LWVCC, as reported in the Columbian. “I am stymied by her reluctance.”

Carolyn Long chimed in via a press release: “I’m disappointed my opponent continues to dodge a real, meaningful debate with an opportunity for us to discuss the issues concerning families of Southwest Washington. Our campaign will move forward with an event at the same date and time so that the voters of our district have the opportunity to hear how at least one of the candidates for Congress plans to solve the challenges they’re facing.”

I’m disappointed my opponent continues to dodge a real, meaningful debate with an opportunity for us to discuss the issues concerning families of Southwest Washington.

Carolyn Long (D), WA-03

 

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Ohio 7th: Bob Gibbs vs. Ken Harbaugh

In April of 2018, Congressman Bob Gibbs was asked by a constituent whether he would agree to debate Ken Harbaugh, a Navy veteran who is challenging him for his seat in Congress. Congressman Gibbs responded by saying “We’ll decide that later.” Four months later, Gibbs still had not agreed to a debate. Harbaugh responded by sending letters to all of his offices challenging Gibbs to a debate.

Gibbs has continued to refuse. In a statement to the Cleveland Plain Dealer his office said he “would not respond” to the challenge. Since then, Ken asked Rep. Gibbs in person whether he would debate, and Rep. Gibbs refused and walked away:

Dmm_WAtX4AAZ5g8The constituents of OH-07 have rallied behind Harbaugh’s call for a debate, in hopes of hearing a free exchange of ideas between the candidates.

“This is just one more example of Bob Gibbs not doing his job,” said Harbaugh. “When I travel throughout Ohio, voters ask if I will debate. I tell them ‘Anytime. Anywhere.’ When our Congressman is asked the same question, he won’t respond. He calls the idea a ‘political stunt.’ Is heath care a ‘political stunt’? Is the opioid epidemic a ‘political stunt’? Bob Gibbs always has time to speak to wealthy donors and big corporations, but when Ohioans ask for his time to talk about the issues that matter, he refuses.”

Bob Gibbs always has time to speak to wealthy donors and big corporations, but when Ohioans ask for his time to talk about the issues that matter, he refuses.

Ken Harbaugh (D), OH-07

 

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Tennessee 7th: Mark Green vs. Justin Kanew

The US House seat in TN-07 is open for the first time in years, due to GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s decision to run for the open Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Bob Corker.

All of the Republicans we’ve highlighted thus far have been incumbents, but apparently incumbency isn’t a prerequisite for avoiding public debates. Republican Mark Green has thus far rebuffed Democrat Justin Kanew’s offer to engage in a series of three public debates, despite the fact that they are both new to the scene. After not responding to written requests, Kanew had the opportunity to ask in person:

No dice.

“The seat is open for the first time in 16 years,” Kanew said. “The people deserve to hear from us. My opponent Mark Green clearly feels he’s been handpicked by the GOP power brokers, and that they are the only ones he needs to answer to, but I believe we must answer to the people. Open debate is healthy for our democracy, and should have no party.”

Mark Green clearly feels he’s been handpicked by the GOP power brokers, and that they are the only ones he needs to answer to, but I believe we must answer to the people.

Justin Kanew (D), TN-07

 

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Texas 22nd: Pete Olson vs. Sri Preston Kulkarni

Local Texas affiliate ABC 13 offered to host a debate for Rep. Pete Olson and his Democratic challenger Sri Preston Kulkarni. The offer came in June, for a suggested early September debate. Olson eventually (quite recently) turned down the offer, though he had over two months to make the decision.

Kulkarni hasn’t given up. This tweet is from September 15th:

Pete Olson hemmed and hawed for two months before declining. When I asked him to publicly commit to a debate, he said he was “too busy working” to make that commitment. TX-22 deserves to hear both candidates speak.

Sri Preston Kulkarni (D), TX-22

 

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West Virginia 3rd: Carol Miller vs. Richard Ojeda

This summer, the students and administration of Marshall University teamed up with the League of Women Voters to plan a candidate debate in the 3rd District of West Virginia, where a seat vacated by GOP Rep. Evan Jenkins has opened an opportunity for new leadership.

Invitations were extended to State Rep. Carol Miller (R) and State Senator Richard Ojeda (D) – the nominees from their respective parties. Ojeda accepted. Miller, curiously, has not. In fact, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Miller has ignored requests from multiple groups wanting to host debates and forums for the candidates. From the Gazette-Mail article:

Neither Miller nor a campaign spokesman answered inquiries regarding whether Miller would participate in a debate. However, her spokesman, Matthew Donnellan, offered a statement that did not address debates but made mention of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and “other California socialists.”

She and the two incumbent Republicans running for seats in the House of Representatives in the state have drawn ire from their Democratic challengers for failing to agree to any sort of public dialogue.

Ojeda seems pretty determined to engage in a debate with Miller whenever and wherever he can:

I will debate [Carol Miller] in a Wendy’s parking lot!

Richard Ojeda (D), WV-03

 

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The List of Republican debate-dodgers Goes On and On…

Kansas 4th: Ron Estes vs. James Thompson

Debates are like job interviews. If he won’t show up for the interviews, he won’t show up for work and should not get the job. The people deserve to hear where Ron Estes stands on issues. Hiding from constituents and hoping the letter behind your name gets you elected is cowardly politics.

James Thompson (D), KS-04

 

Illinois 16th: Adam Kinzinger vs. Sara Dady

Rep. Adam Kinzinger: you can’t represent people if you don’t talk with them.

Sara Dady (D), IL-16

 

Missouri 4th: Vicky Hartzler vs. Renee Hoagenson

Vicky Hartzler is calling me a bully for demanding that she face constituents. I’ll take it. This is a representative who hides from the voters and actively works against their interests. I will do what it takes to hold her accountable and if she won’t show up, then more people will see her contempt for the democratic process. 

Renee Hoagenson (D), MO-04

 

Pennsylvania 12th: Tom Marino vs. Marc Friedenberg

Tom Marino’s refusal to participate in a debate weakens our democracy. I understand why he feels tempted to refuse: his views are incredibly unpopular, and he doesn’t want to shine a spotlight on that. He’s failed us again, though. I’m prepared to speak with any voter, at any time, and I look forward to speaking with thousands of them between now and November 6.

Marc Friedenberg (D), PA-12

Arizona 5th: Andy Biggs vs. Joan Greene

Biggs was booed off the stage on April 11, 2017 and hasn’t been back since. If you are brave enough to make a vote your constituents don’t want you to make, you should be brave enough to answer for it. If you aren’t trying to kill the people, steal from them or bankrupt them, you should not fear doing a town hall.

Joan Greene (D), AZ-05

 

Texas 8th: Kevin Brady vs. Steven David

I have personally handed a debate invitation to Kevin Brady, as well as mailed one to his campaign office. He has not responded.

Steven David (D), TX-08

 

Texas 10th: Michael McCaul vs. Mike Siegel

Here in TX-10, League of Women Voters chapters in both Austin and Houston offered to moderate debates. My opponent has ignored all requests so far. This is consistent with his general approach. Michael McCaul hasn’t held a public town hall in over ten years.

Mike Siegel (D), TX-10

 

New Jersey 4th: Chris Smith vs. Josh Welle

Chris Smith refuses to answer numerous calls to show up for debates or town halls. He hasn’t had a town hall in 25 years.

Josh Welle (D), NJ-04

 

Texas 14th: Randy Weber vs. Adrienne Bell

We have requested that Randy Weber debate. We sent four certified return receipt letters, two were returned. No response.

Adrienne Bell (D), TX-14

 

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And it’s not just US Congressional Races. This is a problem at state and local levels as well:

Pennsylvania HD-152: Tom Murt vs. Daryl Boling

From my proposed Townhall event at Bryn Athyn College, to a Moms Demand Action sponsored candidates forum on September 26 (the invite still stands for his attendance), Tom Murt time and time again has declined opportunities for voters to meet with both of us and ask open questions about the issues that concern them. Any day and anytime the offer still stands.

Daryl Boling (D), Pennsylvania HD-152

 

Indiana SD-49: Jim Tomes vs. Edie Hardcastle

The Courier & Press and WNIN have invited us both to debate the issues so the public can learn more about what we stand for, but Jim Tomes has refused all three opportunities. I think Hoosiers need someone who is willing to stand up and answer questions about education, wages, and health care. What is he afraid of?

Edie Hardcastle (D), Indiana SD-49

 

Kentucky HD-88: Bill Farmer vs. Cherlynn Stevenson

Bill Farmer claimed a “conflict” when he was asked to join me in a forum for the League of Women Voters, which would also be broadcast locally on PBS. This forum happens every single election and has for years and years.

Cherlynn Stevenson (D), Kentucky HD-88

 

Arizona LD-23: Jay Lawrence vs. Eric Kurland

Jay Lawrence does not understand that being a Representative is a promise and not a suggestion; a job description and not just a job title.

Eric Kurland (D), Arizona LD-23

 


 

Mad yet? The bottom line message here: demand accountability and transparency in representation. And don’t settle for anything less.

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