In stark contrast to 2010's 3rd Congressional District race, this year's race finds the two major candidates squaring off in only one debate before the Nov. 6 general election. Current Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly and his Democratic challenger, Missa Eaton of Sharon, will meet Oct. 24 in front of television cameras at WQLN-TV in Erie. This debate also will include independent candidate Steven Porter. The debate is not open to the public. It will be recorded and aired at 8 p.m. Oct. 25. Tom New, director of creative services at WQLN, said that the station's signal covers Erie and Crawford counties and parts of Mercer County in the 3rd District. Joe Taylor, general manager of Armstrong, expressed an interest in attempting to broadcast the debate in Butler County. When Kelly of Butler faced incumbent Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper for the seat in 2010, debates and forums were held in a few locations, including Butler. Eaton has challenged Kelly to debate in all seven counties in the district. She said that it is important for as many people as possible to see candidates debate. “Constituents deserve a chance to question their elected officials and those seeking office,” Eaton said in a statement. The 3rd District covers all of Armstrong, Butler and Mercer counties, all of Crawford County except Titusville and parts of Clarion, Erie and Lawrence counties. Organizers in the district attempted to set up other debates between the candidates, but they either were canceled or did not come together, often because Kelly could not schedule a date or did not respond. One debate that would have involved the Butler County, the Meadville-Western Crawford County and the Grove City chambers of commerce was being planned during the summer. Stan Kosciuszko, president of the Butler County Chamber of Commerce, said that the three chambers were planning for the debate likely to be held in Grove City. “But, that never materialized,” Kosciuszko said. The chambers contacted both Eaton and Kelly. Eaton responded, but Kelly did not. With only one candidate interested, the chambers could not have a debate. “We decided not to do it,” Kosciuszko said. Another debate that was canceled was going to be Oct. 17 and sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Mercer County. Lyn Weidner, league co-president, said that the league began planning the debate in July. It contacted all three candidates with the date of the debate. She was introduced to Kelly Aug. 20 at the Crawford County Fair. When she asked him about the debate, she said that Kelly told her that he would attend the debate. “He said, 'I'll be there,'” Weidner said. Following that, she sent out messages to Eaton, Porter and Kelly to confirm that they would attend the debate. She heard back from Eaton and Porter, but not from Kelly. After that, Porter expressed an interest in continuing with the debate, but Eaton said she did not because Kelly was her main opponent. The league was forced to cancel the debate. Weidner said that the league still would have held the debate without Kelly because there still would have been two candidates from two different parties. However, with only Porter interested, they could not have a debate. The league has held debates since it was founded in 1971, including one between Kelly and Dahlkemper in 2010. Weidner said, to the best of her knowledge, this is the first of this scale that was canceled, which left her dismayed. “We think its imperative that the voters know what the candidates stand for,” Weidner said.
Josh Wilson, a Kelly campaign spokesman, said that Kelly's campaign schedule, along with his congressional schedule, has made it too difficult to hold multiple debates.
“He has kept an exhaustive schedule and has been extremely accessible to the people of the 3rd District the past 21 months,” Wilson said.
When asked about Eaton's challenge to debate in all seven counties, he said that the campaign will stick with its set schedule.
“We are committed to our debate schedule,” Wilson said.
Mike Yeatts, political director for Eaton, said the campaign is disappointed by the lack of debates.
The campaign particularly was interested in doing debates in counties that are new to the district, he said. For this election, a state committee redrew the lines of the district. It lost parts of Erie County and all of Venango and Warren counties, but picked up all of Armstrong and Mercer counties, most of Crawford County and parts of Clarion and Lawrence counties.
“We were very much looking forward to the opportunity to debate Congressman Kelly throughout the district,” Yeatts said.
Michael Coulter, a political science professor at Grove City College who is knowledgeable about local races, said congressional races rarely have several debates.
He said the 3rd District races in 2002, 2006 and 2008 did not feature debates between the two major party candidates and the 2004 race had two debates.
“It's the exception when there are three or four debates,” Coulter said.
He said it is usually an incumbent's opponent who wants debates, mainly because opponents usually have less money to spend than incumbents.
“It's a low risk, high reward opportunity,” Coulter said.
Overall, he said that debates have little impact on these types of races. Advertising and grass roots movements have much more impact. He said debates usually are more useful for primary races, where party members are trying to pick the best candidate for the general election.
Porter of Wattsburg, Erie County, the independent candidate, said, this year he was invited to four debates, three of which were canceled. This did not sit well with him.
“The people are entitled to this,” Porter said.
Georgiann Kerr, chairwoman of the Butler County Democratic Committee, said she too is not pleased with only one debate, particularly if it may not be aired in the county.
“It's very disappointing,” Kerr said.
Jeff Smith, chairman of the Butler County Republican Committee, said that he does not necessarily see the need for a debate in the county. Debates are mostly useful when the candidates are unknown or there are a large number of undecided voters, he said.
“Mike is well known throughout Butler County, as well as the rest of the district,” Smith said. “So people know where he stands.”