The last debate with all three Republican candidates for governor was April 22, more than seven weeks removed from the June 13 primary.
The reason? According to the two other campaigns and a potential debate organizer, frontrunner Ed Gillespie either isn't interested, or isn't available. Gillespie, who leads in public polling and fundraising, has skipped enough potential joint appearances that it's looking like a strategy in the waning weeks of this campaign.
"He's ducking everything," said Rob Catron, spokesman for state Sen. Frank Wagner's gubernatorial campaign. "They're just taking everything for granted."
Gillespie's campaign points to a busy schedule and a front-loaded series of three debates and other forums that all three candidates attended. Spokesman David Abrams said there have been 20 joint events overall, and that Gillespie has had 30 public campaign events just in the first three weeks of May.
"Ed's energetic and positive campaign is resonating in every corner of the Commonwealth," Abrams said in a short emailed statement that was all the campaign would put on the record for this article.
Republicans unaffiliated with any of the campaigns said it's obvious, though, that Gillespie's keeping his head down. That includes staying away from Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, who seldom misses a chance to bash Gillespie and whose campaign efforts have included multiple appearances with the Confederate flag.
"It's to Ed's credit," former Republican Party of Virginia Executive Director Shaun Kenney said. "Who in their right mind would want to take a picture next to Corey Stewart?"
At one point in this campaign, Stewart was admonished by the state party chairman for the language he used against Gillespie. Stewart told the Daily Press this week that Gillespie "is desperate to dodge voters in Virginia because he's hiding his liberal record." He also pointed to Gillespie's successful career as a D.C. lobbyist, accusing him of being an owned crony of special interests.
On Monday evening, Gillespie stopped by the Tusk & Trunk event in Norfolk. He shook hands, mingled and left before the two other candidates stepped to the microphone to make campaign pitches.
An organizer said the group first asked the campaign to commit to a date for the event in February.
On Wednesday afternoon, the organizer of a Common Ground Coalition event in Norfolk was holding out hope Gillespie would attend, though the campaign never agreed to do anything beyond looking to see whether the forum would fit into his schedule.
"Impossible to know (whether they meant it)," chairman Nelson Velez said. "They're like Hollywood. They have a script that they follow."
Stewart was the only candidate to show.
When Gillespie skipped a March forum put together by the Hanover County GOP, organizers fumed. In the planning stages they'd switched the event's date after talking to a Gillespie scheduler. Candidates who'd confirmed for the first date agreed to make the change, local party chairman Russ Wright said.
Wright said the campaign's response was, "We'll get back to you."
"I was pretty angry," Wright said at the time.
The Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce once hoped to schedule debates for both the Republican and Democratic gubernatorial primaries, but couldn't make the dates work, President and CEO Bryan Stephens said. On the GOP side the conversations took place in April. Wagner and Stewart provided dates they could make it, Gillespie did not, Stephens said.
"I don't think it was a definitive no," Stephens said. "It was just the challenge of calendars and logistics. ... We didn't push it."
The Democrats in this race, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, agreed to five debates and three other joint appearances, and their last debate airs Sunday on NBC 4 in Northern Virginia.
Asked whether debates are more useful nearer Election Day, when more people pay attention, Kenney said he doesn't think it matters this time.
"I think the voters have made their decision," he said.
Christopher Newport University political scientist Quentin Kidd said Gillespie's strategy is both obvious and reasonable.
"He risks little by keeping a low profile," Kidd said in an email. "Additionally, he hasn't mentioned the name Donald Trump in months as far as I can tell."
John Fredericks, the Hampton Roads talk radio host who chaired Trump's campaign in Virginia, said Gillespie's strategy may makes sense "on a spreadsheet," but he questioned its wisdom in practice. He also said there's a lot more to a campaigning than debates.
"He's certainly not ducking the media, and he's not ducked me," Fredericks said. "He's come on any time we've asked, within two days."
Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.