By Erin Murphy, Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau
DES MOINES — For Kim Reynolds and Fred Hubbell, the upcoming series of Iowa gubernatorial debates will be their first such experience and the stakes will be high.
Reynolds, the Republican governor since 2017, and Hubbell, the Democratic challenger, are scheduled to debate each other three times in the coming weeks. The first debate is Wednesday.
The debates will provide them an avenue to make their individual cases to voters while challenging each other on the issues driving their campaigns. The opportunity is crucial in a race that could remain close until the Nov. 6 Election Day.
In a recent Iowa Poll published by the Des Moines Register, Hubbell was chosen by 43 percent of likely voters and Reynolds by 41 percent. Nine percent said they were undecided.
That 2-point advantage for Hubbell is well within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
“Generally I think debates don’t really move the needle too much, but in a really close race, and it looks like we have that in Iowa, even moving a couple of points in either direction can really matter,” said David Andersen, a political-science professor at Iowa State University.
Campaign experts and former campaign staff members said it will be interesting to watch Reynolds and Hubbell, especially during the first debate, given their relative lack of experience on the debate stage.
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Reynolds has not debated on such a stage before; there were no lieutenant governor debates in 2010 and 2014 when she was Terry Branstad’s running mate. Reynolds became governor when Branstad became the U.S. ambassador to China; this is her first time atop the ticket.
Hubbell is a first-time candidate for public office. He participated in a series of Democratic primary debates, but the three general election debates will be different in tone and he will be sharing the stage with one opponent, not several.
“There is kind of a science behind debating,” Andersen said. “It can take a lot of preparation. Part of it is just being comfortable in the format. You are going to have a chance to answer a question that you can’t anticipate, and your opponent has a chance to hit you back with something they can prepare ahead of time. That’s very unnerving for a lot of people.”
The candidates likely will use the debates to stress their campaign themes and try to sway the small percentage of undecided voters who remain, experts said.
In traditional incumbent vs. challenger arguments, Reynolds has been making the case that Iowa is headed in a positive direction — citing low unemployment, for example — while Hubbell has said a new direction is needed — citing, for example, the troubles many patients are having with the private management of the state’s Medicaid system.
“It’s about staying on message. You walk into a debate saying this is what I want to talk about, and you make every effort to pivot back to that,” said Norm Sterzenbach, a veteran of campaigns in Iowa. “The more you can stay on message, the more you are, quote, ‘winning.’”
In attempt to sway undecided voters, the candidates are likely to talk about issues voters say are most important to them, said Jimmy Centers, a veteran of GOP campaigns in Iowa.
“I expect to hear both candidates talking about issues like health care, like education, like economic and pocketbook issues that all sort of rank in the top tier of issues, and describing how their polices are going to improve the lives of those undecided voters,” Centers said.
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At the same time, because debates seldom change the minds of a significant amount of voters, one of the challenges is to simply avoid making a big mistake.
Think, for example, of Rick Perry, who during a presidential debate forgot the name of the third federal agency he planned to eliminate.
“My general philosophy, overall, about debates is to not make a mistake,” Sterzenbach said. “That’s typically how I advised candidates to go into these. Focus on your message and what you want to talk about first and foremost, defend yourself on issues you feel like you need to defend yourself on. But overall it’s not about trying to find a ‘gotcha’ moment or trying to win a debate. To me, it’s about not losing the debate.”
But candidates can’t stand on the debate stage for an hour and say nothing of consequence. They must show a firm grasp of the issues and ideas for the state’s future — and that is magnified in a tight race, experts said.
“These candidates are going to look to separate themselves from their opponents and connect with their voters in a way that a television ad just can’t,” Centers said. “That might be telling a personal story, sharing why their policies are going to improve the lives of viewers and the voters, and potentially sharing, too, why the policies of their opponent will adversely impact Iowans.”
In other words, the candidates may go on the offensive.
Reynolds and Republicans have criticized Hubbell for not publicly releasing more of his tax returns, and for criticizing tax incentives for businesses after companies he led or had stakes in took advantage of the same credits.
Hubbell and Democrats have criticized Reynolds for the Medicaid problems and midyear state budget cuts.
“The hard part is there’s not a big group of persuadable voters out there,” said Christopher Larimer, a political-science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “It’s a tight race. I think both sides are going to have to address the other side.”
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“I’m also curious to see how they go after each other,” Anderson said. “It’s been a relatively nice campaign so far. I’m interested to see if it gets a little nasty.”
In addition to policy, the candidates likely will attempt to seem relatable to voters — especially the kind who may not yet have their minds made up, experts said.
“I think they both just need to come across as looking both competent and personable,” Andersen said. “When people watch these debates, they like to vote for a governor who’s a good person. So personality matters. But they also want to know (the candidates) know what they’re talking about.”
One candidate for governor will be on the ballot, but not in any of the three debates.
Jake Porter, the Libertarian candidate, was not invited to participate in the debates despite the party gaining official party status — and with it a spot on the ballot — after the 2016 elections.
Porter polled at 7 percent in the Iowa Poll.
Porter said he was told by the various debate hosts — Iowa TV stations and newspapers — that he did not meet fundraising and polling bench marks established for candidates to participate.
Porter singled out KCCI-TV, host of the first debate, in an email.
“I find it sad that KCCI treats (the 16 percent) of Iowa voters that are undecided or supporting me as well as the many voters willing to potentially change their vote with such blatant disrespect that they would exclude a candidate polling at 7 percent,” Porter said. “Without me in the debates, Iowa voters will not be able to hear many important topics being ignored, such as criminal justice reform.”
Porter has said he plans to attend each debate alongside supporters of his campaign.
Iowa gubernatorial debate schedule
— 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday on KCCI-TV and streamed on KCCI.com, from Des Moines
— 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Oct. 17, on KWWL-TV, KTIV-TV and KTTC-TV, from Sioux City
— 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. Oct. 21, on KWQC-TV and KCRG-TV, from Davenport