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Rand Paul declines to debate Charles Booker on KET

Paul/Booker
Democratic challenger Charles Booker and Republican incumbent Rand Paul

Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul did not respond to an invitation to debate Democratic challenger Charles Booker on Kentucky’s statewide public television network, KET.

The forum, scheduled for Oct. 3, was the only scheduled appearance between the two candidates. Paul is running for his third six-year term in the U.S. Senate.

In a statement, a representative from KET said Paul had met candidate criteria and was invited to the debate but his campaign had not responded to the invite by the deadline. Instead, Monday’s episode of Kentucky Tonight will only feature Booker.

Paul was asked by WKYT earlier this week if voters will have a chance to see him debate Booker. In response, Paul said his campaign was “troubled by some of the advocacy for violence coming from the campaign and that’s given us some pause.”

In a statement, Booker responded that Paul’s use of “violence” to characterize Booker’s campaign was a “dog whistle.”

“Over and over when faced with accountability for his negligence, Rand Paul tries to hide and claims himself to be the victim. Last night, when asked on local television why he wouldn’t debate me, Rand used a racist dog whistle, claiming he was concerned I was “violent.” What is violent is encouraging political violence against our nation’s capitol on January 6. Rand Paul believes in all of these things, and whether he debates me or not, we will end his violence against the people of Kentucky on November 8,” Booker said.

Paul told WNKY 40 last week that he hadn’t decided whether to debate yet.

“We’re still thinking about the debate and haven’t made up our mind,” Paul said at the time.

Booker tweeted earlier this week that he was disappointed Paul declined the invite.

“KET debates are a fixture in Kentucky politics. The debate is neutral, and the candidates do not set the terms. It is a statewide platform to reach all Kentuckians. I accepted. Rand declined. No matter who you support, Rand’s actions here are pitiful,” Booker said.

Paul will defend his seat against Booker during the General Election on Nov. 8. First elected in 2010, Paul has gained national attention for questioning the prevailing science on the coronavirus pandemic. Paul is an ophthalmologist and resides in Bowling green. He also unsuccessfully ran for president in 2016.

Booker is an attorney from Louisville and former state representative. He rose to prominence while running for U.S. Senate during the 2020 racial justice protests. He narrowly lost the contest to retired Marine pilot Amy McGrath. Booker is the first Black nominee in a federal election in Kentucky.

The election is a contest of stark opposites – Paul’s libertarian-leaning stance of limited government and less spending will be pitted against Booker’s progressive policy platform he dubs the “Kentucky New Deal.” A large part of Booker’s campaign has focused on his “Hood to the Holler” effort aiming to build an urban-rural coalition.

Paul’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

University of Kentucky political science professor Stephen Voss said Paul already has the advantage as an incumbent with a hefty campaign war chest, so there’s not much incentive for him to appear in a televised debate with Booker.

“If he shows up on a stage side-by-side with Booker, he gives Booker more name recognition and legitimacy,” Voss said. “The calculation by an incumbent will be, ‘we don’t want to give extra credibility to our opponent when there’s very little we’re likely to gain from it, and we’re not likely to lose much from refusing it.’”

Voss also said televised debates are the few instances where candidates or elected officials have to face voters without a handler or a specific script in sight.

“Losing that firsthand communication from our elected officials at a time when they’re not being overly handled by staff means that now what we’re consuming is a political product rather than a leader,” he said.

University of Louisville political science professor Dewey Clayton said Booker would have had a lot to gain in a televised debate with Paul.

“A lot of people have heard a lot about Booker, but still don’t really know a whole lot about him. Paul does have an established conservative base that is more than likely to stick with him, but there’s some others who are still on the fence. Just seeing them out there talking could change the dynamic. Paul has everything to lose, and Booker has everything to gain,” he said.

The General Election is on Nov. 8 and the last day to register to vote is Oct. 11.

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