Katie Hobbs, Arizona Secretary of State and candidate for governor, waves during the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce Fourth of July Parade in Flagstaff, Ariz., on Monday, July 4, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Arizona’s Katie Hobbs is not the first gubernatorial candidate in history who refused to debate. In 2018, Kay Ivey—after ascending to the Alabama governorship the prior year—wouldn’t debate in the primary and the general election. She is unlikely to debate this year as she seeks a second full term. In Nevada four years ago, Democrat Steve Sisolak wouldn’t accept a debate invite from a newspaper he deemed biased. His rival, Republican Adam Laxalt, reciprocated by rejecting a different invite, and no agreement was ever reached, each blaming the other.

But Hobbs’ case is different. The Democratic nominee is not projected to win easily. Unlike the Nevadans four years ago, Hobbs does not insist that she would debate under the right conditions. Instead, the 52-year-old Arizona secretary of state declares her gubernatorial opponent Republican Kari Lake, is not worthy of debate.

Lake spent 22 years as a popular Phoenix reporter and television anchor who has emerged as a full-throated Trump supporter and election denier. In a June Republican primary debate, Lake said of 2020, “We had a rigged, stolen election. The facts are there. The forensic audit proves it.” Of course, the facts are not there, and the election audit from the GOP-controlled Arizona Senate election did not find any proof of fraud. The debate’s moderator, presumably trying to remain neutral, did not flatly say Lake was lying. At one point, Lake effectively took over the job of moderator, asking that all who “agree that we had a corrupt, stolen election, raise your hand.” Two of her rivals did, but Karrin Taylor Robson scoffed, “I’m not going to play your stunt.” The stuntwoman bested Robson by 5 points.

Hobbs does not want to suffer Robson’s fate. “I’m not interested in being a part of Kari Lake’s spectacle or shouting match,” Hobbs said Wednesday. Hobbs’ spokesperson previously argued, “you can’t debate a conspiracy theorist.”

Democrats constantly grapple with Republican opponents who reject fundamental truths. (Journalists face this issue, too.) Should they confront them or deny their legitimacy by never appearing on stage together? Should we expose them to sunlight or cut off their oxygen?

Hobbs is a former social worker whose quiet rise from state Senate minority leader to Arizona’s Secretary of State to gubernatorial nominee offered few clues to a gamble like this. But she has gone all in and isn’t flinching.

Ever since Hobbs balked at debating Lake, it’s been a big deal. Earlier this month, the two appeared at a joint town hall—not a debate where they jousted under the watchful eye of a moderator. Before Hobbs took her turn on the stage to answer questions, Lake violated the event’s rules by sitting in the front row instead of waiting in a green room. Then Lake caused a scene by pressing the moderator to hold a “real debate,” delaying the event’s start before relenting.

On October 12, Lake was prepared to participate in a proverbial empty chair debate moderated by Arizona PBS’ Ted Simons and sponsored by Arizona’s Citizens Clean Elections Commission. This politically balanced governmental body is directed by statute to organize debates. Under the law, if only one candidate accepts the invite, “the debate will be held and will consist of a 30-minute question and answer session for the single participating candidate.” (The aforementioned June primary debate was organized by the commission and moderated by Simons, perhaps feeding Hobbs’ concern that Lake would once again steamroll the proceedings.)

Hours before the event, Arizona PBS announced it would soon host a separate 30-minute session with the Democrat Hobbs. The law puts no requirement on PBS to deny the debate-skipper such a platform. But the commission angrily said Arizona PBS “broke from our shared practice” and canceled the Lake event right before it began, with a pledge to reschedule using a different broadcast outlet. Lake thundered that “PBS has unilaterally caved to Katie Hobbs’ demands and bailed her out from the consequences of her cowardly decision to avoid debating me on stage.”

For a swing state candidate in a tight race, fully owning the cancellation of debates is a dicey call. Naturally, Lake is using Hobbs’s debate-ducking as a cudgel, routinely accusing the Democrat of  of cowardice, “We need a strong governor,” Lake has said, “not somebody who is afraid to debate, not someone who is afraid to even look at me.”

Arizona columnists are wagging their fingers at Hobbs, like Laurie Roberts of the Arizona Republic, who scolded Hobbs, saying that she isn’t just letting down Democrats; she may well be letting down Arizona.” Some skittish Arizona Democrats recently fretted to NBC News that they fear Hobbs hurt herself.

Has she? Or is Hobbs making her point by sending Lake into apoplexy? There’s no way to know, at least not now. Since Hobbs announced her rejection of debates on September 11, she has lost a little ground in the two main polling averages—2.7 points in FiveThirtyEight and 1 point in Real Clear Politics. That slippage could be seen as evidence that Hobbs has suffered a self-inflicted wound, or it could be a natural tightening as Lake consolidates Republican base voters following her narrow primary victory over Robson in August.

From a historical perspective, a Democrat running neck-and-neck in Arizona could be viewed as an initial success. Arizona Republicans have won seven of the last nine gubernatorial elections, and most of those wins weren’t close. And Hobbs has a much better chance of winning than some other Democratic candidates that have captured the party’s imagination—such as Texas’ Beto O’Rourke, and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams—who are trying to flip governors’ mansions.

We will never be able to know what might have transpired had Hobbs gone toe-to-toe with the poised and provocative Lake. Hobbs is not undisciplined like Blake Masters, the Republican U.S. Senate nominee from Arizona, who talked loosely about his respect for the Unabomber’s political writings. But Hobbs is not nearly as polished as a television professional like Lake, and her presence is more casual than commanding. Sixty minutes of vicious smears and election lies from Lake, paired with unsteady hems and haws from Hobbs, may well have shaved off two points or more in the polls.

One argument for getting on the debate stage is it provides an opportunity to create viral social media content, drive news, and stimulate fundraising. That’s true of Ohio’s already legendary U.S. Senate debate on October 10 when Democrat Tim Ryan skewered Republican J.D. Vance, whom Trump told a recent rally is “kissing my ass [because] he wants my support so much.”

“Ohio needs an ass-kicker, not an ass-kisser,” said Ryan in the line of the night.

For those of us who love political theater (and I include myself), such moments make debates exhilarating and sometimes clarifying. But debates have become either meme generators or insomnia remedies. The idea that debates are the essence of democracy—with deep substance, probing questions and thoughtful exchanges—owes its prestige to the Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates and the John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon televised debates a century later. We have no Lincoln-Douglas debates today.

To my mind, the vapid nature of the modern debate is paradoxically a compelling reason to participate: better to get it over with than to get saddled with being called a chicken. But that easy conclusion doesn’t consider the preparation required for a good debate.

Because the debate over debates has become the dominant story of the Arizona gubernatorial race, strategists in both parties will surely draw conclusions based on the outcome. If Hobbs loses, few candidates will dare duck debates again. But if Hobbs wins, that will send the message that voters don’t care. And if a campaign can reasonably conclude the debate can be avoided without voters caring, then that’s time reclaimed to be used on the candidate’s terms. In other words, if Hobbs wins, expect fewer debates.

Until then, Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman readies for a debate in no small part to demonstrate that a recent stroke hasn’t left him unable to serve or continue mercilessly skewering his Republican rival Dr. Mehmet Oz for living in New Jersey. (By all signs, it hasn’t.) Similarly, in Georgia, the often-rambling Herschel Walker will debate the silver-tongued incumbent Rev. Raphael Warnock in a contest that will give the right-to-life Republican not only a chance to dig out from charges that he paid for a girlfriend’s abortion but also to show that he’s not too slow to for the U.S. Senate. In all likelihood, the candidates’ success or failure will hinge upon whose one-liners hit hardest.

The Hobbs gambit helps clarify what’s better for democracy: Firing zingers at anti-democratic demagogues or refusing to debate anti-democratic demagogues? Whatever your feelings about debates, let’s hope Hobbs bet correctly.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.