Democrat Jon Ossoff's decision to skip a scheduled Atlanta Press Club-hosted debate with Republican Karen Handel is "hurting the voters" in Georgia's sixth district, the organization's president said.
"We feel it is our service to give an opportunity for the candidates to debate each other and to help the voters understand the issues in the election," said Atlanta Press Club president Lauri Strauss. "When one candidate chooses not to participate, it's not hurting the Atlanta Press Club, it's hurting the voters who are not getting the opportunity to hear where their candidate stands."
Strauss said the Atlanta Press Club had been in talks with both Ossoff and Handel for the past six weeks and was officially notified that Ossoff would not be participating in the June 13 debate on Saturday night. Handel's campaign agreed to the debate on May 31.
Ossoff had previously pushed his Republican opponent for more debates, saying that "part of bringing fresh leadership and accountability to Washington is to engage with as many voters as possible" and that he was "always up for" debates.
His campaign says his issue with the Atlanta Press Club debate was that it was going to be aired nationally on CNN and would likely be moderated by CNN hosts.
"Our statement on CNN debate is that we are committed to debates moderated by members of the local metro Atlanta press corps, and unfortunately we did not come to an agreement on that with CNN," said Ossoff spokesperson Sacha Haworth.
Strauss says that the Atlanta Press Club has hosted debates for 25 years and that the debate would have been focused on local issues.
"For over 25 years, we have hosted debates for voters of Georgia," Strauss said. "Yes, this would have aired nationally but it would have focused on the topics and issues that are most important to the voters of the sixth district."
"Obviously there is a lot of attention around the country on this race, which is why CNN was interested in working with us," Strauss said.
She noted that CNN chose to partner with her organization "because they knew that the Atlanta Press Club is a very respected journalism organization with a history of doing debates in Georgia."
Ossoff has not shied away from making his campaign pitch to CNN's national audience in the past, including on the morning of his April election.
Handel has agreed to participate in an additional two debates the next week, one of which was the Atlanta Press Club debate that was going to be aired on CNN. She also agreed to participate in a June 15 debate on WSB Radio that Ossoff is yet to agree to.
Ossoff's campaign would not answer whether he planned to participate in the WSB Radio debate.
Ossoff initially challenged Handel to six debates, saying that "publicly debating the issues […] is paramount to ensuring that our democracy is as transparent and accessible as possible."
Handel's campaign is taking her opponent’s decision to skip the Atlanta Press Club debate as an opportunity to highlight Ossoff's "flimsy resume and lack of knowledge on policy issues" and say that he is "scared" of Handel.
"Jon Ossoff has been dodging and flip-flopping on questions throughout his campaign and is now refusing debates," said Handel spokesperson Kate Constantini. "I don't blame someone with such a flimsy resume and lack of knowledge on policy issues to be scared of Karen Handel but it's time he comes clean with the voters of the sixth district."