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It's been a pretty contentious debate season for Senate midterm races

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tonight in Ohio, Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan meets Republican author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance on the debate stage. Their second and final encounter is the latest episode in a fairly contentious Senate debate season. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has been tracking it all, and she joins us now.

Good morning, Danielle.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey there, Rachel.

MARTIN: Many of these Senate debates have really been up in the air until the last minute this election season. How come?

KURTZLEBEN: Right, yeah. Earlier this fall, it was a really slow debate season to start. Candidates on both sides of the aisle for a lot of offices just weren't agreeing to debate each other. Now, at this point, you do have a lot of candidates in these Senate races who have agreed to debate, albeit perhaps only once in some cases. In Nevada's Senate race, it appears a debate just flat-out won't happen.

And there are a bunch of reasons why a candidate might want to limit debates. One is that they just see that there is more to lose than gain in a debate. I mean, given that clips from debates can be shared over and over online, if you make a gaffe, it can just be super costly. And, plus, with a lot of really entrenched voters, you just might decide you might not win many over, even with a good debate performance. But even with these drawbacks, some candidates have ultimately decided to come out and debate because if they don't, their opponent can call them scared or cowardly. And furthermore, if your race is really tight - and a lot of these are - you may just hope that a debate could push you to a win, if only by a little bit.

MARTIN: Yeah. So we're in the thick of it right now - Senate debates. There was one Friday night in Georgia. Tonight, there's the one I mentioned in Ohio - also happening in Florida and Colorado. And obviously, each of these races is different. But are there common threads in the debates that we have seen thus far?

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, very, very many. I mean, in general, you're seeing a lot of similar attacks by party here. For example, Democrats are talking a lot about abortion, casting their GOP opponents as too extreme on the subject. But Democrats also, interestingly, have felt OK distancing themselves from President Biden and even criticizing him. Here's Democratic Senator Mark Kelly at an Arizona debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK KELLY: I've been strong on border security, and I've stood up to Democrats when they're wrong on this issue...

BLAKE MASTERS: It sounds like the same...

KELLY: ...Including, by the way...

MASTERS: Yes?

KELLY: ...Including the president. You know, when the president decided he was going to do something dumb on this and changed the rules, you know, that would create a bigger crisis, you know, I told him he was wrong.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, relatedly, Republicans are working to tie Democrats to Biden, who isn't very popular, particularly in some of these really close states. And Republicans are also attacking Democrats on inflation and the economy and casting Democrats as soft on crime. Now, many of these issues really are important to people. And by - I don't mean to diminish them by pointing out that they come up over and over, but the fact that all these debates are so similar, it's a sign of how the two parties really have fundamentally different ideas at this point. And they see defeating each other as existential to the country. And in addition, getting people to vote based on fear is an effective strategy, probably.

MARTIN: So those are some of the common themes. What about the differences? I mean, the personal attacks we're seeing do kind of seem pretty notable.

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, yeah, very much. And there was a notable personal attack in the last Ohio debate where Democrat Tim Ryan referenced a recent Trump rally in Ohio where Trump celebrated J.D. Vance's support by saying that J.D. Vance is, quote, "kissing my ass." Now, Tim Ryan in the debate went after Vance on this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM RYAN: After Trump took J.D. Vance's dignity from him on the stage in Youngstown, J.D. Vance got back up on stage and said - starts shaking his hand, taking pictures, saying, hey, aren't we having a great time here tonight? I don't know anybody I grew up with, I don't know anybody I went to high school with that would allow somebody to take their dignity like that and then get back up on stage.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, one other thing we're watching is how candidates are framing national issues for their own statewide races. For example, in Wisconsin, Republican Senator Ron Johnson and Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes were asked about abortion in terms of the fact that Wisconsin now has an abortion ban in effect. And Johnson responded by saying that he wants a state referendum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON JOHNSON: We all agree that society has responsibility to protect life. But at what point does society have the responsibility to protect life in the womb? I want we, the people, to decide that. I would have one vote like every other Wisconsin citizen.

MARTIN: So big picture, Danielle - I mean, do debates make a difference in how voters make their decisions come Election Day?

KURTZLEBEN: I mean, in broad strokes, often the consensus is that these debates don't move voters much, I mean, barring a massive gaffe from either candidate. And, also, like I said, there just aren't a lot of persuadable voters. But it can potentially hurt to not do a debate. And, also, in these debates, you might be working to mobilize people, not just persuade people. So candidates will be trying to do that.

MARTIN: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben, thank you so much.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILL VAN HORN'S "LOST MY MIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.