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Dodging debate: Missouri Senate primary contenders avoid facing opponents

Neither party has organized a debate featuring all of the leading candidates running for the upcoming U.S. Senate seat in Missouri.

ST. LOUIS, Missouri — Missouri voters decide which candidates will appear on the November ballot to run for the U.S. Senate two weeks from tomorrow night, and while that contest could end up deciding which party controls the Senate, we still have yet to see the leading candidates of either party on the same debate stage.

Trudy Busch Valentine and Lucas Kunce, two of the three candidates leading in the Democratic primary polls, were slated to debate in a televised event last week, but the event was abruptly canceled. The station's general manager blamed the cancellation on Trudy Busch Valentine's campaign, though they never agreed to do it in the first place.

"There was there was no discussion," primary candidate Lucas Kunce said. "I thought we were we all thought we were having the debate and so when it didn't happen, that was a surprise."

Kunce said he was prepared to debate Busch Valentine on TV earlier this month, but "she decided not to show up."

In lieu of an unscripted exchange on live television, Busch Valentine's team has opted for the safer, more controlled environment of advertisements and campaign events with friendly crowds.

Campaign finance records filed with the FEC show Busch Valentine spent nearly $1.6 million of the roughly $2.4 million she's raised so far. She heads into the final two weeks with $780k left to spend. 

Kunce is winning the donor primary, hauling in $4.4 million, and topping the field in spending too, at $3.5 million. 

Spencer Toder raised more than a million dollars but missed the polling threshold to qualify to appear on that debate stage.

"People deserve to have their voices heard," Toder said. "I'm here ready to debate and it's time for that."

Toder said money is no longer the sharpest way to measure campaign success. He argues voters are more interested in authenticity from candidates before they put their trust in them. He measures his successes on the campaign trail in registering voters, raising money for refugees in need, helping people in poverty apply for Medicaid, and organizing petition drives to get people wrongfully imprisoned set free.

"We shouldn't be buying votes through advertisements that are written by consultants and that are pre-recorded and that have a thousand cuts," he said. "We should be out in front of people and having real conversations about how we're going to impact their lives."

"Trudy is regularly on public stages answering questions from voters across the state. That will continue through the primary," Busch Valentine campaign manager Alex Witt said in an email.

"This is a job interview," Toder said. "That's what this is. And would you ever interview someone where you only saw an advertisement that a consultant wrote that they were reading off a teleprompter? Or if you only heard the same answers over and over for the course of a year? You wouldn't."

"It does seem a little weird that someone who wants to be a U.S. Senator wouldn't be willing to talk publicly about their positions in that way," Kunce said. "For me, like, I'm ready. So, let's do it."

The top Republican candidates are dodging the debate stage, too. 

U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, former governor Eric Greitens, and Attorney General Eric Schmitt have avoided appearing on the same debate stage at the same time. Their reluctance to go head-to-head resulted in debate cancelations with traditional media and a far-right alternative news site.

5 On Your Side has asked each of them to respond to a set of debate-style questions on camera for a video voter guide scheduled for publication later this month. 

Former President Barack Obama highlighted the importance of debate in his farewell address on January 10, 2017.

"Politics is a battle of ideas. That's how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter — then we're going to keep talking past each other, and we'll make common ground and compromise impossible."

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