Gov. Kim Reynolds and Democrat Fred Hubbell took the stage at the Ankeny campus of the Des Moines Area Community College on Wednesday night for what was billed as the first debate of the candidates for governor in the November election. But the hour-long event, sponsored by the Des Moines Register and television station KCCI, didn’t include all the candidates — Libertarian Jake Porter was excluded — and the two on stage didn’t actually debate.
Neither of those things is surprising.
Contemporary campaign debates are modeled after the debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), a nonprofit created in 1987 by the national Democratic and Republican parties, in large part, to keep third-party candidates out of debates. In September, KCCI published an editorial justifying the decision to exclude Porter.
But by any objective data available, whether registered voters, votes garnered in the primary or fundraising, the newsworthy debate — the debate we think best helps the electorate make a decision this fall — is between Fred Hubbell and Kim Reynolds.
Porter was the choice of 7 percent of likely voters in the most recent Iowa Poll. The November election will be the first general election in which a Libertarian candidate will be on the ballot for governor in Iowa.
In addition to getting rid of third-party candidates, CPD also eliminated the opportunity for candidates to debate during their events. Instead, candidates either stand or sit near each other, as they answer questions from members of the media. CPD rules limit opportunities to respond to or ask questions of each other.
Reynolds and Hubbell stood behind lecterns on Wednesday night.
At one point, the candidates had an exchange on funding Medicaid that was debate-like, but both moderators intervened and stopped the exchange.
“We have to move on. We have other topics,” said KCCI’s Steve Karlin, as the candidates continued to talk about Medicaid funding. “We need to…”
“OK, well, let’s move on,” Kathie Obradovich of the Des Moines Register added, before asking her next question.
All the questions were on subjects already covered in ads released by both campaigns, and the answers from the candidates were ones they have given before — word-for-word in the case of one of Reynolds’ answers, according to a tweet from the executive producer of This Week in Iowa.
— Sarah Beckman (@SarahBeckman3) October 11, 2018
Possibly the most interesting thing about the event was that neither candidate mentioned Terry Branstad, who was governor of Iowa for more than two decades and is the reason Reynolds was on the stage.
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Branstad selected Reynolds as his running mate in 2010 (thanks, in part, to Steve King’s support of Reynolds), and this election is the first time she is running for statewide office without Branstad.
Reynolds didn’t mentioned Branstad in her opening statement, in which she talked about being the embodiment of “the Iowa story,” because she has gone from working as a waitress and a grocery store checker to being governor.
Hubbell didn’t mention Branstad either, although most of his critique of Reynolds’ performance as governor is based on her continuing policies started by Branstad, such as Medicaid privatization. The only previous governor Hubbell spoke about was Robert Ray, a Republican who was governor in 1970s and was admired by people across the political spectrum.
After Reynolds criticized him for only releasing summaries of his income tax returns, Hubbell said, “I did exactly the same thing that Bob Ray did [with] his tax releases. I released the same information, the same way he did.”
The subject of Hubbell’s personal finances also produced the most unintentionally revealing response of the night.
“Gov. Reynolds, your party usually celebrates economic success. Why make an exception for Mr. Hubbell?” Obradovich asked.
“Well, we do admire wealth,” Reynolds said, before criticizing Hubbell for not embracing Republican tax policy.
The next scheduled debate will take place in Sioux City on Oct. 17.