The California Republican Party calls Malia Cohen, the Democratic candidate for state controller, a chicken for not agreeing to debate her GOP opponent, Lanhee Chen. Photo via Twitter

By Emily Hoeven | CALmatters

(CALMATTERS) – As Election Day approaches, you’re likely to spot Gov. Gavin Newsom popping up in plenty of television ads. You’ll see state controller candidate Malia Cohen on her various social media feeds. Attorney General Rob Bonta will be busy attending plenty of press conferences.

But what are the odds that voters will catch any of these Democrats at a televised political debate? Don’t bet on it.

That’s over the strenuous objections of their three Republican opponents and the state GOP. For weeks, controller candidate Lanhee Chen has been calling on Cohen — sometimes accompanied by a dancing chicken — to meet him on the debate stage. 

On Tuesday, two other GOP candidates for statewide office joined the call. State Sen. Brian Dahle, who is running a long-shot campaign to unseat Newsom, cheered on Fox 11 anchor Elex Michaelson after the reporter offered to moderate a gubernatorial debate. Two hours later, attorney general candidate Nathan Hochman challenged Bonta to not one, but three debates — at minimum.

The offers, demands and feathered mascots don’t seem to have swayed any of the Democrats. Newsom’s campaign reportedly turned Michaelson’s offer down. Bonta’s campaign met Hochman’s tweet with deafening silence. And after my colleague Sameea Kamal reached out to Cohen’s team, she got a very definitive thanks, but no thanks.

  • Cohen campaign: “Cohen does not take orders from the Republican operatives who put Trump in power and have now placed their bets on Lanhee Chen.”

There’s no mystery why a Democrat running for statewide office in California wouldn’t be interested in going head-to-head with their opponents.

The conventional wisdom in electoral politics: If you’re already ahead, don’t do anything that might give voters a reason to reconsider. And in California, a Democrat facing a Republican in a statewide race is automatically the presumed frontrunner. A few quick facts: The last time a GOP candidate beat a Democrat in a race for statewide office was 2006. Back then Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans by 8 percentage points. This year the gap is 23 percentage points. 

  • Counterpoint, offered by Hochman in a press release: No matter the electoral odds in a race “no candidate should feel entitled to a free ride to an election.”