PHOENIX — Democrat Katie Hobbs' campaign on Friday all but ruled out participating in a televised debate with her opponent in the governor's race, Republican Kari Lake.
In place of the debate, Hobbs' campaign manager proposed a televised forum in which she and Lake would be interviewed separately by Arizona PBS moderator Ted Simons.
"We believe our proposal would achieve the goals Clean Elections aimed to achieve and satisfy the concerns of Arizonans, who wish for nothing more than a sober opportunity to weigh their candidates," campaign manager Nicole DeMont said in the two-page letter.
"Our letter says what it says," Hobbs spokesman Joseph Wolf said in a brief phone conversation. Wolf didn't push back when asked whether Hobbs was ruling out a debate.
The debate sponsor, the Arizona Citizen Clean Elections Commission, issued this statement:
"Clean Elections has received a letter from the Hobbs campaign proposing changes that would significantly alter the nature of the event. This is the first proposal we have received from the Hobbs campaign and we will review it in due course."
Lake responded via Twitter that Hobbs was "a coward."
The absence of a televised debate during the 2022 election cycle would bring to an end a 20-year tradition in Arizona politics.
The organizers had set a 5 p.m. Friday deadline for Hobbs and Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly to respond to their respective debate invitations.
Hobbs' decision ends more than a week of speculation about whether she would participate in a debate. Lake had already agreed.
Earlier in the day Friday, the Kelly campaign agreed to participate.
Kelly had not made public any reservations he had about the debate. But in an email from his campaign manager to the debate organizers, Kelly's team told organizers they had "some concerns about the suggested format."
His Republican opponent, first-time candidate Blake Masters of Tucson, had already RSVP'd.
Debate on Day Ballots Go Out
The hourlong U.S. Senate debate is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 6 in the Phoenix studios of Arizona PBS.
The hourlong gubernatorial debate will be the following week, at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 12, also at the Arizona PBS studios.
That debate falls on the same day that early ballots for the Nov. 8 general election will be mailed to Arizona voters.
Ted Simons, host of "Arizona Horizon," will be the sole moderator for both debates.
The debates are sponsored by the Arizona Citizen Clean Elections Commission. The commission and Arizona PBS work with the campaigns on the debate format.
The debates will be broadcast live over dozens of TV and radio stations, including 12News. Several newspaper websites will livestream the debate.
In addition, "PBS NewsHour" has agreed to livestream the gubernatorial debate on its website, which reaches millions of viewers.
Gamesmanship Not Unusual
It's not unusual to see gamesmanship before campaigns agree to a debate.
It is unusual for participants in the Clean Elections debate to be given a hard deadline to respond.
Hobbs signaled two weeks ago she had problems with the debate format.
"We will be seeking changes to the format to ensure that Arizona voters get a robust policy debate based on fact, instead of regurgitated lies about the 2020 election," the Hobbs campaign told 12News.
The Democratic secretary of state's apparent focus was reining in Lake, a former TV news anchor who spent almost 30 years in front of a camera.
Concerns About GOP Debate
The Trump-backed Lake used the Republican primary debate in June as a platform for lies about the 2020 election.
Lake declared the "stolen election" was her No. 1 issue.
Thirty seconds into a news conference on Thursday, Lake repeated the lie, claiming that "more than half of this country" voted for Trump in 2020. Trump lost the presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden by seven million votes.
As secretary of state, Arizona's chief elections officer, Hobbs has been a target of election deniers like Lake. Hobbs is one of several elections officials around the country who have received death threats for doing their job.
Hobbs' letter says Lake mentioned false conspiracies about the 2020 election at least 12 times during the hourlong Republican debate
Lake taunted Hobbs on social media as Hobbs pondered her debate decision.
"To make things even easier for you," Lake said in a Twitter video, "I'll allow you to choose the moderator. Hell, I'll even let you write the questions."
Lake's offer to let Hobbs pick the moderator was somewhat dubious. Lake has singled out certain reporters for harsh treatment (disclosure: I am one of them) and has refused to talk to major media outlets.
Are the candidates required to debate?
There's no requirement that candidates for Arizona governor or the U.S. Senate take part in any debates, including this one.
Televised gubernatorial debates have been a staple in every election cycle since 2002.
The Arizona Citizen Clean Elections Commission, with its broadcast partner Arizona PBS, sponsors dozens of debates for legislative, congressional and statewide offices.
One of the commission's roles is to provide public campaign funding for candidates who agree not to accept money from outside sources. Clean Elections candidates must take part in these debates.
But with money flooding elections, fewer candidates are "running clean," as Clean Elections candidates are known.
Hobbs, Lake, Kelly and Masters are raising their own money and being supported by outside groups. So they don't have to participate in these debates.