Boozman Campaign Says Eldridge Never Sent Debate Invite, Moderator Withdraws

(left to right) Republican U.S. Senator John Boozman and Democratic challenger Conner Eldridge.

Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Conner Eldridge has been pillorying Republican incumbent John Boozman for not accepting his invitations to debate, but he may not have sent out a formal invite for a debate Friday. Eldridge and Libertarian Frank Gilbert will be debating each other at the University of Arkansas but Sen. Boozman's campaign says it never got an invite.

"Senator Boozman has not received an invitation to his opponent's event. This is just another campaign gimmick. We have been in talks with AETN for several months, and Senator Boozman has stated on the record multiple times since March that he will participate in the televised AETN debate. That debate will take place on October 12 and be seen by Arkansans across the state."

Eldridge has however been routinely challenging Boozman in public speeches and social media posts to debate. But, that didn't pass muster for the debate's moderator. In an e-mail addressed to the campaigns, provided to KUAR by Boozman's operation, Doug Thompson of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette pulled out of the event.

"I agreed to moderate in your debate Friday with the understanding that Sen. Boozman had been invited to attend but had not responded. After the news release announcing the event went out on Monday, Chris Caldwell with Boozman's campaign called me that evening. Your campaign's news release, he said, was the first the senator's campaign had heard of this event in Fayetteville. I asked him to please have campaign staff check the files in the morning to make sure either an invitation or notice was not overlooked. He called back at about noon today and said they have searched their email, phone messages and letters by post. They could find no notice or invitation, either in past files or in today's communications.

So I called you. You told me an email had been sent to the Boozman campaign sometime earlier. Even so, we have no assurance this email was ever seen by the Boozman campaign or that it didn't wind up in someone's spam filter.

I understand that Conner offers a standing challenge to debate the senator anytime, anywhere. That is not the same, however, as scheduling an event without making sure notice was received by the vitally interested parties, whatever their intended or assumed response might be.

My first impulse was to withdraw as moderator, but since the newspaper's involved, I asked my boss to make that decision. I gave a flat, impartial run-down of the particulars to Rusty Turner, whose reply I will quote: “My comfort level with this just dropped to zero.”

Therefore, I withdraw as moderator for your event."

The number of debates, two, was also an issue in the 2014 U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor and the ultimately successful Republican challenger Tom Cotton. KATV's Janelle Lilley even followed Pryor into an elevator to repeatedly ask why he wouldn't debate Cotton more.

KUAR has reached out to the Eldridge campaign for comment.