Price on Politics: Rand Paul won’t debate Charles Booker

Price Wilborn, Commentary writer

Debates between candidates in an election have been a large part of the political culture in the United States for over a century. Most known and recognizable are presidential debates that take place during the presidential primary and general elections. Lesser known but just as important, however, are debates for Congressional, statewide and local races.

In 2020, Mitch McConnell and Amy McGrath faced off in a televised debate on KET. McConnell and then Kentucky Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes debated in 2014. Rand Paul and then Lexington Mayor Jim Gray even debated in 2016. 

It seems natural, then, that Rand Paul and Charles Booker face off in a televised debate before the Nov. 8 midterm elections. They won’t be, however.

On Sep. 24, Booker tweeted “Yesterday, we learned that Rand Paul declined a debate with me. He doesn’t want to face the people of Kentucky, and he is terrified to face me. Pitiful.”

The question over whether the two would face off in a debate has lingered for months. Paul was asked about the possibility of a debate as early as July.

There are two possible explanations as to why Paul refuses to debate Booker: either Paul feels that he doesn’t need it or, as Booker noted in his tweet, he is unsure – and possibly scared – at the idea of debating the Democratic nominee.

Kentucky is a deep red state and has been for decades. The last Democratic senator from the commonwealth served from 1974 to 1999. In each election since 1998, the Republican nominee has won election or reelection. Kentucky has voted overwhelmingly for GOP presidential candidates in every election since 2000. Very rarely in recent history has there been more than one or two Democratic members of the Kentucky delegation to the US House of Representatives.

This deep red history plays in Paul’s favor. The majority of voters in Kentucky vote Republican. The Paul campaign is making a strategic move not debating Booker. RealClearPolitics places the race in its “Safe GOP” category with Booker behind Paul by 16 points. Chances are much greater for Paul to win than for Booker, so the Paul campaign may not see it as a necessity to win reelection. Instead of wasting time on a debate, Paul can spend more time fundraising and with voters.

Another possible explanation for Paul’s unwillingness to debate Charles Booker is a fear that in a face-to-face debate, Booker could perform better. Throughout the campaign, Booker has touted his support that ranges from Kentuckians living in the large cities of Louisville and Lexington to farmers in rural parts of the state to Republicans and Democrats alike in Eastern Kentucky.

Charles’s platforms have support from a wide-ranging base of support, but it is still not as large as Paul’s. Putting the two candidates on the debate stage together has the possibility of showing moderate Paul supporters that voting for Booker would not be so bad. His campaign proposals include a Kentucky New Deal that promises to improve infrastructure around the state, bring jobs back to the commonwealth, and benefit each and every Kentuckian.

Giving people in Kentucky the chance to see the two debate ideals on television has the possibility to greatly change the tides of the race. Paul could come out the winner, increasing his lead over Booker, or the opposite could happen and the race could grow closer and more competitive.

Kentuckians will not get the chance to see if this plays out, however. Paul has chosen not to debate Charles Booker. Instead, the Democrat will accept KET’s offer and answer questions solo. Paul has given Booker free airtime to allow the Democrat to attack him and make his case to Kentuckians.

Because it will be just Booker, the debate will no doubt get less views than it would if Paul was on the stage, too. Moderate Republicans might watch in October when the debate airs, but it is much less likely that Paul supporters tune in to watch their opponent.

Many will call Rand Paul a coward while others will call him smart for not taking the bait. I agree with both.

If Rand Paul believed he had a chance at winning the election after participating in a debate, he would engage Booker. He would show to Kentuckians that he is willing to put his beliefs to the test against Booker’s and come out on top.

Not participating shows weakness. He obviously believes it is not in his best interest to debate Booker. Should the debate have taken place, I believe that the race would have been much closer after the two candidates left the stage. Instead, Paul will continue to play to his further right base, attacking Booker from afar while linking himself with former president Donald Trump.

This tactic might work, however. Since Trump’s candidacy and subsequent election in 2016, a GOP base that is further to the right has been activated. They believe in the work that Trump and other MAGA Republicans are doing. A significant portion of this base is in Kentucky, and all Paul has to do is play to it.

Paul is preventing all Kentuckians the opportunity to adequately compare two candidates, however. Without the debate, the democratic process is hindered. While debates are not a required part of the electoral system, it is such a large part that the tradition should be continued. It prevents Kentuckians from hearing directly from the candidates while setting a dangerous precedent that any candidate that feels they could lose ground at a debate can choose not to attend.

Rand Paul needs to debate, but because he fears losing and wants to ensure a victory, he will not.

Commentary writer Price Wilborn can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @pricewilborn.