United Utah hopeful Jim Bennett qualifies for 3rd District debate in race to fill seat vacated by Jason Chaffetz

Three-way debate will be first for Utah Commission.<br>

FILE - In this June 21, 2017, file photo, Jim Bennett speaks to reporters during a news conference at the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City. Bennett, the son of the late U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, sued to get on the ballot with his new political party in the special election to fill the seat of outgoing U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah. Judge David Nuffer said in a hearing Friday, July 14, 2017, that he's not ready to rule on whether he'll order state officials to include Bennett and his United Utah Party on the November ballot but he intends to make a decision soon. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

After concerns that the first poll deviated from the “prescribed approach,” the Utah Debate Commission ran a second survey — and with this one the new United Utah Party’s Jim Bennett has narrowly qualified to spar against the Republican and Democratic candidates looking to replace former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz.

This is the first time a third-party candidate will participate in the selective debate since the commission began hosting them in 2014.

“We’re making history here,” Bennett said. “It’s really exciting. I couldn’t be happier.”

In the latest poll released Friday, Bennett fetched 6 percent. That’s still well below Provo Mayor John Curtis, the Republican and automatic front-runner in this red district, who collected 54 percent and pulled further ahead of Democrat Kathie Allen, a first-time candidate and fundraising powerhouse, who landed just under 17 percent.

Still, it was enough for Bennett, son of the late three-term U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, to earn a podium for the Oct. 18 debate (to be held 6 p.m. at Provo’s Brigham Young University). Barely.

The commission’s co-chairman Thomas Wright said it came down to one person selecting Bennett in the poll to put him over the qualifying threshold.

“We’ve always said that every vote counts and, in this case, one voter put a candidate into the debate,” he added.

The new survey, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates from Sept. 14 to 20, follows one the commission released last week in conjunction with a statewide poll commissioned by Utah Policy. With those results, Bennett had missed the debate by a thin margin of 0.43 percentage points.

The commission has attributed the do-over to a problem with the order of the questions. In the past, it has done its own polling devoted solely to the elections involved in its debates.

“We were doing it as a service to them — with the understanding that was their question,” said LaVarr Webb, Utah Policy publisher, when the results and “oversampling” became disputed.

In a statement Friday, the commission said it ran a new survey among 600 registered voters in the 3rd Congressional District “to maintain the integrity of the process” and be “consistent with polls conducted in previous election cycles.” It has a 4 percentage point margin of error.

Bennett believes the results validate his campaign, which has faced a rocky path to the Nov. 7 ballot that included a late start and a court battle.

“I have an awful lot of ground to cover,” he said. “The reality is that people are voting according to old habits. They don’t know who I am and they don’t know anything about me.”

(It doesn’t help that his last name has been misspelled on both of the polls.)

Bennett has certainly been campaigning for more visibility and sees the debate as an “opportunity to blow the whole race wide open.”

“They said I wasn’t going to be able to get on the ballot. I’m on the ballot. They said I wouldn’t get in the debate. I’m in the debate. So I think that should give pause to anybody who doesn’t think I have a chance.”

It’s significant that Bennett will participate in the debate, said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, because it seems he’s “drawing votes from Kathie Allen more than he is from John Curtis.”

More time in the limelight might amplify that trend, he added.

“[He‘s] going to use these debates in a very strategic way to build name ID,” Perry said.

The five other independent, write-in and third-party candidates in the race collectively got 5 percent in the poll and will not be included in the debate. Libertarian Joe Buchman congratulated Bennett for “cracking the glass ceiling” and leading the way for other voices to be included in political discussions.

Allen’s and Curtis’ campaigns, too, welcomed the United Utah Party’s addition to the stage.

“He’s trying to break down the partisan labels that are polarizing our political discourse, and we’re trying to do the same,” said Daniel Friend, Allen’s spokesman.

Friend also attributed Allen’s slight dip in the new poll — down to 16.67 percent from nearly 20 percent — to the margin of error. Unlike Curtis, she didn’t face a primary election to reach the ballot for the general election.

“The pollsters just happened to talk to a few more Republicans this time,” he said.

Danny Laub, spokesman for Curtis, said the results continue to show that the mayor’s “hard work and message of getting things done for Utah are resonating across the district.”

Roughly 16 percent of respondents reported being undecided. The open seat, which the conservative Chaffetz won handily by at least a 37 percentage point margin each election for five terms, came up for grabs when the congressman stepped down early on June 30.

At least one other debate in the race is planned for Oct. 13 and is set to take place at Sandy’s Eastmont Middle School at 6:30 p.m.