Republican voters of the new 27th Congressional District are being mistreated. Theirs may be the most significant election in Western New York this year, yet they are being deprived of some of the best opportunities to evaluate the two Republicans who are seeking the post.
Candidate debates are a normal and expected part of the electoral landscape, in primary elections and in general elections. Yet, with the June 26 primary election looming, there are no real debates scheduled between GOP candidates David Bellavia and former Erie County Executive Chris Collins. Bellavia's camp is pressing for them while Collins' is resisting. It's predictable, but in the end, a disservice to the needs of democracy.
It is typical in American politics for challengers to push for debates and for incumbents to back away. Collins, who was defeated last year in his bid for a second term as county executive, is not the incumbent; Democrat Kathy Hochul is. But Collins has the greater name recognition and in that regard, has more to lose in a debate than he has to gain. For Bellavia, an Iraq War veteran who has previously run for office, the calculation is the reverse: He has much to benefit from a debate and little to lose.
But this isn't about the candidates. Their motivations must take a back seat to the needs of the Republican voters of the 27th District who must decide which candidate will represent the party against Hochul in the November election. Hochul has already shown she can win in a largely Republican district, so this election should matter to GOP voters and leaders, alike.
The candidates met for an interview session in Canandaigua last week, but it wasn't the kind of testing that helps voters to clarify the issues. The Erie County Federation of Republican Women is sponsoring an event on Tuesday, but the Bellavia campaign protests, plausibly, about the leading role played by Erie County Legislator Lynne Dixon, who is close to Collins. Indeed, it says it was advised by the League of Women Voters of Buffalo-Niagara that the federation's debate was unfair. Meanwhile, the Collins campaign is snubbing an invitation to debate on television station YNN on June 18.
That debate – so far, at least – offers the best opportunity for the greatest number of voters to compare and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses the candidates offer. Some influential Republicans evidently think so, as well. Party chairmen from Orleans and Wyoming counties have called on both candidates to accept the invitation from YNN.
Bellavia points out that he accepted on June 5 – the day that YNN made the offer. Collins has yet to speak to the issue, leading some to believe he wants to force voters to choose without offering them the benefit of a true face-to-face debate. As Orleans County Republican Committee Chairman Ed Morgan observed, that could help to produce a record low turnout and render a disservice to the district.
Time is running short. The primary is less than two weeks away. Republican Party leaders from around the district should join their peers from Orleans and Wyoming counties in demanding that Collins accept the YNN debate. That's not a matter of supporting one candidate over the other, but of supporting voters over the candidates.
That's how it's supposed to be.