Franken declines students’ call to debate on campus

The student government waged an unsuccessful push for a senatorial debate on campus.

by John Thomas

A U.S. senator and candidate in November’s election refused an invitation last week to debate at the University of Minnesota despite a heavy push on social media, prompting student leaders to question how candidates prioritize college-age voters on their campaign trails.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., denied the request from members of the Minnesota Student Association. Although student leaders expressed dismay, experts say debates aren’t the best route for politicians to sway voters.

Larry Jacobs, a political science professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said debates are often less effective than other person-to-person types of voter outreach, like canvassing neighborhoods or holding registration drives.

In the coming weeks, Franken’s campaign said the senator plans to reach out to potential voters across campus with the help of the University’s College Democrats.

A representative from McFadden’s campaign said it plans to attend MSA’s Voterpalooza event later this month.

The event aims to register students to vote and allow them access to information about policy issues that affect their community, MSA legislative staff Kristen Anderson said.

Jacobs said events like Voterpalooza are better for rallying voters than debates because those types of events, which focus on voter registration, are more effective in getting students to cast their ballots.

“Candidates care about groups that show up to vote,” he said, adding that young people often don’t get out to the polls.

Before Franken denied the request to debate on campus last week, MSA spearheaded a Twitter campaign designed to convince the candidates to attend. Students and other members of the University community published dozens of tweets last month to further the cause.

University President Eric Kaler joined in by authoring a tweet Aug. 15.

“We’re incredibly disappointed that Sen. Franken turned us down,” MSA President Joelle Stangler said.

Officials from McFadden’s campaign told MSA they would participate in the debate, MSA communications director Drew Coveyou said.

Despite the dropped event, Franken’s campaign said he has made students a priority in other ways during his time in office.

For example, last year, Franken co-sponsored a bill that would help lower the cost of college textbooks.

“Senator Franken…is working hard to help lower the cost of college for all Minnesotans,” Alexandra Fetissoff, a Franken campaign spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “He believes in debates and will participate in a total of four debates this election, as his first goal is to communicate with Minnesota voters.”

MSA hasn’t formally asked Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis, and his challenger to debate on campus, Stangler said, adding that the group may pursue scheduling the event in the future.

Both campaigns from both candidates in that race expressed interest in debating during Voterpalooza.