What scares incumbents? A hard question.

Gov. Mark Dayton was a no-show at Tuesday’s Farmfest gubernatorial debate.

Incumbent Sen. Al Franken showed up at yesterday’s Senate debate, but he, too, is refusing some traditional debates, including the MPR News State Fair debate, which would have been the first debate after next week’s Republican primary. It prompted a rebuke from the Rochester Post Bulletin.

Why are the people who hold office so afraid of being questioned?

Blois Olson, the political strategist who’s run a campaign or two in his day, provides one answer in his excellent Morning Take newsletter today:

Debates have always been risky for candidates, but in no year in memory has the concept of a debate elicited such fear in candidates of the two major parties.

First Sen. Al Franken bailed on MPR at the Fair, then Gov. Mark Dayton did the same. This week, Gov. Mark Dayton avoided a candidate “panel” at FarmFest, but yesterday Sen. Al Franken and his likely challenger Mike McFadden sat side-by-side at Farmfest. Then late yesterday afternoon, via email from a representative of Kurt Zellers campaign sent an email to WCCO Radio withdrawing from the debate for both the Zellers and Scott Honour’s campaign.

Yes, the two campaigns had coordinated the withdrawal, they say because GOP endorsed candidate Jeff Johnson wasn’t going to be there. However, where else could candidates talk to more voters for free 5 days before the most hotly contested primary in modern GOP history?

The coordination suggests that the campaigns are all concerned about Johnson’s perceived momentum. But the trail of debate dismissals by candidates of both parties suggests something more troubling.

Candidates have become so handled and fearful of gaffe’s or tough questions that they hide behind ads and media statements. In the age of viral videos, and Twitter blow-ups controlling everything possible is the major focus of the modern campaign.

The problem is that it doesn’t represent leadership, but rather a dangerous desire to be safe and scripted at every turn. Who or what suffers? Voters and democracy. If authenticity was the most common trait of winning candidates for the last 15 years, the new winning for a winning candidate might be accessibility. After all, if candidates are afraid of people or controversy to avoid a forum at the Minnesota State Fair, or a gaffe that goes viral on social media, then democracy is in major trouble, and so is the quality of the candidates and elected officials the major parties are producing.