Youngkin said he’s willing to participate in two additional debates if his campaign can come to an agreement with McAuliffe’s on certain details, including the dates, locations, broadcasters and moderators.
McAuliffe has accepted an invitation to the law school debate, as well as debates proposed by the Virginia Bar Association in Hot Springs and at Norfolk State University, the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia branch of AARP in Richmond.
“I think it’s really important that we have debates all over the commonwealth of Virginia so that everybody understands what we stand for,” McAuliffe said in an interview Thursday, after his campaign released an online video accusing Youngkin of trying to duck out of most debates.
“I’m going to do these debates. I’m going to be on that stage whether he’s there or not, because I think Virginians have a right to know where their governor stands on these big issues.”
Youngkin’s campaign issued a written statement saying he’s eager to go toe-to-toe with McAuliffe.
“Glenn Youngkin can’t wait to debate career politician Terry McAuliffe, who will have to explain his history of flip-flops and false claims,” the statement says. “Only weak incumbents like McAuliffe need to debate five times in the hopes of making up lost ground.”
McAuliffe is not the incumbent governor, as the Youngkin campaign’s statement said. He left office in January 2018 and, like all governors in Virginia, is prohibited from serving back-to-back terms.
It’s not uncommon for political campaigns to squabble over the terms of debates, as McAuliffe commented on during his 2013 campaign. “I find the debate about debates somewhat of a silly conversation,” McAuliffe told a TV reporter at the time, when he had agreed to five debates but had rejected at least one other invitation.
This year’s pre-debate debate is notable because McAuliffe — the candidate with higher name recognition — is pushing for more of them than Youngkin, a first-time candidate who might be expected to want the exposure of additional debates to raise his profile.
“Terry McAuliffe shows all signs of being an aggressive, scrappy challenger even though he’s a former governor,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political scientist and the director of the school’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies.
McAuliffe issued a statement on June 15 saying he would agree to five debates. Youngkin’s campaign waited a week before announcing that he had committed to one and was willing, in principle, to do two more — a delay that McAuliffe highlighted by tweeting about Youngkin.
“Why is Glenn Youngkin afraid to debate?” McAuliffe tweeted. “I’ve accepted 5 debate invitations. He got the same ones. What’s the hold up, Glenn?”
Youngkin strategist Jeff Roe said the campaign was in no rush to respond to McAuliffe.
“We are content to just watch him twist in the wind,” he said.
But some political observers saw the delay as a misstep.
“I think that Youngkin’s team make a rookie mistake in failing to say, ‘We’ll commit to three debates’ last week,” Farnsworth said.
“The delay in accepting three debates means this story continues day after day in a way that’s not favorable to the Republican nominee. It’s the Virginia version of, ‘When is Vice President Harris going to the Mexican border already?’ ” he said, comparing Youngkin’s delayed response to Harris’s long-awaited announcement this week that she would travel Friday to the U.S.-Mexico border, after deflecting questions for weeks about why she had not visited the area.
In the end, Farnsworth said, he expects the candidates will wind up doing three debates, about the norm for Virginia gubernatorial contests.
“That tends to be the average . . . every election cycle,” he said, “despite all the highballing and lowballing in the opening offers.”