For a generation, Idaho has had a fine feature in its political campaigns that many other states do not: An informal yet institutionalized structure of televised political debates that major office candidates as a matter of course take part in. In many states, the decision of whether the participate is renegotiated every election cycle; in Idaho, for many years, declining to participate simply isn't done.
Well, it's done now.
The debates have been set up through the League of Women Voters and Idaho Public Television. There's nothing necessarily sacred about their doing the debates, and over the years other groups and broadcasters have aired other debates as well. (When it comes to debates, the more the merrier, we always say.) But the IPTV-League debates have a special place, partly because they offer historical continuity - they've been done continuously for a long time now - and because they are a complete set. A commercial broadcaster might be interested in a race for governor or Congress, but might be less inclined to put an hour of prime time into a contest for, say, state controller or treasurer. The IPTV debates have created a framework of expectations: A run for major office on a major party ticket will mean you're expected to show up at a particular time and place organized by a group of people who have developed standing over an extended period.
This year, more than before, that's being challenged. Some days ago, Jim Risch, the current Idaho governor running as a Republican for the office of lieutenant governor, backed out of the IPTV debate, instead saying that he'll accept an invitation to appear at a KTVB-TV debate. And today, Republican gubernatorial nominee C.L. "Butch" Otter said he will do the same thing.
They're still appearing at debates, true. And the KTVB debates - they've done them a number of times over the years - certainly are professional too.
But those pullouts seriously weaken a debate structure under pressure in recent years. Its backers will have to do some hard thinking over the next cycle to make sure it doesn't weaken further in 2008.