NASHVILLE — An effort by the League of Women Voters of Chattanooga to host campaign debates with congressional and state legislative candidates has been canceled after the four Republican incumbents declined to participate.
The virtual debates were to be held by the League and the local Daughters of the American Revolution with participation from the Chattanooga Times Free Press and WRCB-TV, which were supplying moderators.
Debates were to run Sunday through Wednesday, with each event featuring a different contest on Zoom and as well as streamed live by participating organizations' websites, Facebook pages and YouTube channels.
According to a news release from the League of Women Voters, incumbent U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tennessee, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, state Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, and state Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, "did not respond to our invitation before the deadline of 4 p.m. on Sept. 30, thereby declining the offer to discuss policy before their constituents in this election season."
Democratic challengers — Meg Gorman against Fleischmann, Glenn Scruggs against Gardenhire, Joan Farrell against Smith and Joseph Udeaja against Helton — accepted the invitations.
"Elections are essential to our country, and voting is a vital part of our citizenship in a democracy," Lisa Bilbrey Hyder, president of the League of Women Voters of Chattanooga, said in the release.
Hyder said "voters have the power to decide elections. Debates are meant to give those voters a sense of what candidates think about issues that are important to them through discussions for the benefit of the electorate."
Scruggs, who is running in state Senate District 10, stated on Twitter Thursday, "Well folks, I tried. But it looks like my opponent doesn't want to debate. I wonder why?"
During an interview Friday, Gardenhire alluded to last week's presidential debate and said, "These debates could turn into a mud-wrestling event instead of a gentlemen's boxing match where two people face off and it's done properly. I'm not about to give the opposition a 15-second bite to use against me and throw away eight years on what I've worked on."
Gardenhire added that he has agreed to sit down with the Times Free Press editorial board "and go over my record and what my strong points are. And I hope my opponent does the same thing."
In her Twitter post, Democratic congressional hopeful Gorman alluded to Fleischmann's having tweeted in advance of the presidential debate and added, "You'd think a rep who tweeted #Debates2020 ten times in one day would actually show up for a debate. When @chuck4congress refuses to debate me, he's refusing folks in TN-03 the opportunity to cast informed votes now and hold their elected official accountable in the future."
Asked why the congressman isn't participating, Fleischmann campaign manager Dalton Temple said the congressman "is focused on securing funding relief for Tennessee businesses and families. With less than two weeks until early voting begins, Congressman Fleischmann is focused on listening to the concerns of the people he represents, and offering real solutions."
Farrell, who is running against Smith, expressed disappointment in a statement, saying that "even more importantly, the voters of Tennessee House District 26 were deprived of the chance to hear the positions and values of both sides to more easily make a reasoned and informed choice. Democracy thrives with spirited public debate of the issues."
Smith cited a scheduling conflict due to a commitment she made in July to serve as keynote speaker at a physicians' assistant group in Gatlinburg. The representative, who is House Insurance Committee chair and a former registered nurse, said, "We're talking about a whole package of legislation, and so I will not even be in the county that entire day."
Calling it "very much unfortunate," Smith added that "invitations to debates need to be planned out in a little more detail." She also said she's campaigning hard across the district.
Udeaja, who is vying with Helton to represent state House District 30, called the absence of a debate "unfortunate," adding "people do want to hear the candidates and hear debate on issues." It was "not really me she disrespected, it was the people in the community," he said.
Helton said she believes "the best way to reach voters in District 30 is door-to-door or direct mail. With only one week left before early voting, you don't let anything else get in the way."
The collapse of the debates also appears to have caused a rift between the head of the League of Women Voters Chattanooga and a prominent member of the local Daughters of the American Revolution.
Linda Moss Mines, a regent of the DAR's Chief John Ross Chapter and public relations coordinator for the Chattanooga DAR's Regent Council, voiced concerns to Hyder in an email obtained by the Times Free Press.
Mines noted that when she was asked to speak to LWV members about Tennessee's place in the history of the women's suffrage movement and the significance of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, "I was excited to share in my role as a historian and an educator. When you suggested that we partner in promoting women and the vote, I was excited to join with you."
But she said things have "gone disastrously astray in the process," noting the DAR is a non-profit organization "and we very strictly adhere to the concept of non-partisan activities that promote the right to vote, the patriotic legacy of our nation and the founding principles of liberty, equality and justice."
Mines also said, "Now I understand that the LWV has launched a campaign targeting those who have not chosen to debate, a right of non-participation which I support as the right of any individual or candidate. I am very upset that you have used my organization's name in criticizing those who cannot, for whatever reason, participate. It appears to be a partisan attack."
Asked about the concerns raised by Mines, including Mines' understanding LWV had launched a campaign targeting candidates not participating that appeared to be partisan, Hyder said in an email to the Times Free Press that "The League of Women Voters is a famously nonpartisan organization. We do not support or oppose candidates or political parties at any level of government."
Candidates, Hyder said, were told there "could be no debate unless at least two candidates in a race were present. When the deadline for responses to the invitations passed, we notified the candidates who had accepted our invitation that their opponents had not responded, and so the debates would not be held."
Hyder also said, "We issued a press release stating the same. At no time did we refer to the party affiliation of any of the candidates."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.