COAST CITIES — In recent weeks, those vying for elected office, whether it be council, mayor or school board, have participated in local debates.
No such public forum took place, nor is one scheduled for the race involving the 49th congressional district.
And it’s not because a formal invite wasn’t offered.
Challenger Jerry Tetalman has asked Rep. Darrell Issa to engage in a debate, but never received word back. At first glance, declining a debate only opens Issa, a six-term Republican incumbent, up to criticism. While that’s true to a minor degree, a debate is largely a liability for someone in Issa’s position, according to UC San Diego political science professor Gary Jacobson.
“Publicity is the first reason that Issa doesn’t want to debate Tetalman,” Jacobson said. “Issa is well known throughout the district and nation. A debate could mean his opponent, who fewer people know, gets a platform to express his views and catch on with a wider audience.”
There’s the potential for a big gaffe from Issa during the debate that changes the race, Jacobson added.
Refusing a debate would cost votes in a close race when the public is familiar with both candidates, due to the public backlash and poor publicity that would ensue, Jacobson said. Yet voters are less critical of an entrenched incumbent turning down a debate. The public may believe “the race is over anyway,” Jacobson said.
Citing Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Jacobson said it isn’t atypical for a debate not to be held between congressional candidates.
“Like Issa, Feinstein is a longtime and well-funded incumbent. She has too much to lose by debating.”
For his part, Tetalman said regardless of the explanation, it’s “un-American” for a candidate to decline a public forum. A democrat, Tetalman’s views sharply contrast with those of Issa.
Tetalman said he’s sought to sway voters to his camp by focusing on jobs for the middle class and by highlighting Issa’s role in controversial birth control hearings.
“I think the people should have a chance to hear the differences between us,” Tetalman said. “Issa should have to defend his record on a stage. He hasn’t done so in years.”
Tetalman’s calls for a debate haven’t gone completely unnoticed. A public petition on signon.org requesting a debate between Tetalman and Issa has received about 750 signatures. Even if the petition garners more signatures, there’s no requirement that Issa participate, according to Jacobson.
“The only thing that would prompt him to debate is if polling showed the race is contested,” Jacobson said.
In the June 5 primary, Issa took in 59 percent of the votes, while Tetalman secured 33 percent.
Several interview requests were sent to Issa’s spokesperson, but were not returned.
Campaign contributions also factor into the race. Candidates who spent the most money when running for the U.S. House of Representatives won nine out of 10 races from 2000 to 2010, according to an analysis by opensecrets.org, a nonprofit and nonpartisan campaign funds disclosure website.
Tetalman said he’s raised about $100,000 for his campaign, a fraction of Issa’s total. According to opensecrets.org, as of the beginning of June, Issa has taken in $1.4 million, a number that’s likely grown since. In addition to leading in campaign contributions, Issa has a personal fortune to draw upon if the race were neck and neck. He is the third richest member in congress, according to a recent study conducted by “Roll Call,” a newspaper covering Capitol Hill.
Adding to Tetalman’s challenges, he’s received hardly any financial support from the national Democratic Party, which is backing closer races.
Further, the 49th congressional district, which was redrawn and stretches from coastal northern San Diego to southern Orange County and also includes Camp Pendleton, Vista and Rancho Santa Fe, leans Republican. The voter registration is 43 percent Republican, 29 percent Democrat and 24 percent no party preference, according to the San Diego County Registrar of Voters.
Jacobson said Tetalman has rightfully tried to appeal to independent voters. But it may not be enough to overcome a solidly Republican district. As such, Issa would likely feel more pressure from a Republican challenger should he win the race and run again next election, Jacobson said.
“Issa may be more vulnerable to a Republican if voter registration remains the same,” Jacobson said. “Though I’m not sure he’s in danger because of his connections and resources.”
“For the time being, Issa will be difficult to unseat,” Jacobson said.