SEATTLE — Ever since the Aug. 2 primary, Tiffany Smiley, the Republican challenger to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, has been pressing Murray to commit to a series of debates.
Smiley has publicly accepted invitations to three debates and a proposed online forum of sorts. Murray insists she will debate Smiley, but has not yet committed to specific events.
The five-term Democratic incumbent is negotiating with debate organizers, with an eye on two televised debates in late October. But as of Thursday afternoon, none has been finalized.
In a statement Thursday, Smiley called Murray's failure to commit to specific debates so far "undemocratic" and showing "contempt" for Washington voters.
"After 30 years in the Senate, Patty Murray has decided that her only path to victory is to slap the democratic process in the face, all after spending millions of dollars on television claiming to be a protector of democracy," said Smiley, a veterans advocate from Pasco who is making her first run for political office.
Murray's campaign manager, Helen Hare, said the senator "absolutely looks forward" to debating Smiley and is in active discussions about a debate in Seattle and one in Spokane.
"Sen. Murray believes this is an important opportunity for voters to witness the clear choice in this election on an economy that works for working families, a woman's right to choose, and the future of our democracy," Hare said in a statement.
The debates on the table include two proposed by the Washington State Debate Coalition, a statewide alliance of media, education civic groups founded in 2016. One is proposed for Eastern Washington on Oct. 7, with a second in Seattle on Oct. 25. (The Seattle Times is a member of the debate coalition.)
Another Eastern Washington debate is being organized by The Spokesman-Review newspaper of Spokane and the League of Women Voters Washington Education fund for Oct. 23.
Murray appears intent on attending only one of the Eastern Washington debates, the event organized by the Spokesman Review. Smiley's campaign says she's agreed to both.
Elisa Carlson, a spokesperson for Smiley, said the campaign has readily agreed to debate proposals, only to be kept in the dark as organizers continue to hash out details with the Murray campaign.
"Our campaign has not been kept in the loop at all," she said in an interview Thursday.
Chris Guizlo, president of the board for Seattle City Club, which is taking the lead on organizing the coalition debates, didn't offer any details of the negotiations this week, saying in an email the group "will have more to share in the coming days."
A fourth debate possibility claimed by Smiley in public statements is not actually a debate.
The event sponsored by the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce is instead intended as a prerecorded online forum in which each candidate would separately answer questions, with the videos posted online in early October, according to Austin Regimbal, marketing and communications director for the chamber.
Murray has always agreed to at least one debate in her reelection campaigns. Still, her debate-limiting strategy — a not uncommon tactic for incumbents — has frustrated other challengers in the past.
In 2004, Republican Rep. George Nethercutt of Spokane, who challenged Murray's bid for a third term, took to publicly debating a pair of tennis shoes to highlight the senator's refusal to agree to more than two debates. (The size 7 sneakers that Nethercutt debated for the cameras were a reference to Murray's well-known political origin story as "a mom in tennis shoes.")
Nethercutt that year also tried to ambush Murray with an impromptu debate at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, after learning he was on the same flight with Murray back from Washington, D.C.
The plan was foiled when Murray slipped away via an unknown exit, leaving Nethercutt mourning the lost opportunity to reporters he'd invited. "It's a big airport," a Murray spokesperson shrugged at the time.