Virginia's Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam is taking heat from his Republican opponent and local editorial boards for his decision to accept only three debates with Ed Gillespie—fewer debates than he agreed to for the Democratic primary.
Gillespie, who emerged from a tight Republican primary earlier this month as the party's nominee, said that Northam's decision to participate in just three debates is "insulting to voters." Gillespie had called for a series of 10 debates, stating that "a series of 10 debates all around our Commonwealth will ensure [voters] know the clear differences between us."
Northam's rejection of Gillespie's challenge comes after he participated in a packed schedule of debates and forums with former congressman Tom Perriello during the final stretch of the Democratic primary.
Between April 22 and May 22, Northam and Perriello faced off in a series of five debates and an additional three candidate forums. Northam has credited the robust debate schedule for the massive turnout in the party's primary.
"As we just saw this month in the Democratic primary's record-breaking turnout, Virginia voters will turn out in large numbers if you discuss the issues that affect their daily lives," Northam's communications director said.
Gillespie says that Northam should agree to debate him at least as much as he debated Perriello in the nearly five-month period between now and Election Day.
"The lieutenant governor debated his primary opponent five times, so why debate so few times in the general election?" Gillespie said in a statement. "We should respect the debate organizers and more importantly the voters."
The Northam campaign contends that Gillespie is going about getting his desired number of debates the wrong way and should have engaged with his opponent rather than negotiate through the media.
"Rather than initiating a good faith conversation when both campaigns were recently together, Mr. Gillespie's campaign has instead chosen to try to negotiate through the media," said Ofirah Yheskel, the campaign's press secretary, in an email.
The campaign says they had a meeting with Gillespie over the format of the first debate, and yet the first it heard of Gillespie's call for 10 debates was in a press release. The campaign called it a "public relations stunt."
Northam's denial is nothing new for Democrats in Virginia.
In 2013, Republican Ken Cuccinelli challenged Terry McAuliffe to a series of 15 debates. McAuliffe similarly called the challenge a "gimmick," and agreed to only three debates. In 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell challenged Democrat Creigh Deeds to 10 debates, but only 4 took place.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial board endorsed Gillespie's call for 10 debates, and the paper was critical of Northam's decision to wait days before responding to his challenge late on Friday afternoon.
Following Northam's rejection of Gillespie's debate schedule, the editorial board at the Roanoke Times argued that debating more should be something that both parties embrace, even if their candidate, like Northam, is considered the front-runner.
"Think of how much better informed we'd all be if the candidates agreed to debate once a week, on a schedule as regular as a television show," wrote the Times. "Virginia actually has two pretty good major party candidates for governor this time (certainly better than last time. That's yet another reason why we'd like to hear from them every week between now and November."
It argues that the debate schedule would be an effective foil to political groups that are likely to flood Virginia's airwaves between now and November.
"Maybe then, just maybe, voters would pay attention to what the candidates have to say for themselves and not what their paid mouthpieces have to say about each other," said the Times.
The Gillespie campaign says that it participated in a "vigorous" debate schedule during the Republican primary, and branded his opponent "No Show Northam" for his refusal to have a vigorous schedule during the general election.
"The Lieutenant Governor's decision to participate in less debates in a general election than he did in his Democratic primary is unfortunately disrespectful of Virginia voters, but consistent with his long track record of just not showing up for work," said Gillespie spokesman Dave Abrams. "The nickname ‘No Show Northam' exists for a reason."