The University of Utah will host a vice presidential debate next year

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Vice President Mike Pence greets Rep. Rob Bishop after speaking at Merit Medical, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.

America’s candidates for vice president will debate next year at the University of Utah — on Oct. 7, 2020 — the Commission on Presidential Debates announced Friday.

It “will be broadcast to millions around the world. This is the first time a national debate will be hosted in Utah — kind of a big deal,” said U. President Ruth Watkins. “We are the only Western state to host one of the debates leading up to next year’s presidential election.”

The Commission on Presidential Debates is holding four events next year — three presidential debates and one for the vice presidential nominees.

The presidential debates are scheduled for Sept. 29, 2020, at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana; Oct. 15, 2020, at the University of Michigan; and Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

Thomas Wright, co-chairman of the Utah Debate Commission, said Utah officials have been working for about a year on their bid seeking to host one of the four debates next year. Is he disappointed that they did not receive one of the presidential debates instead?

“Not at all,” Wright said. “We were thrilled just to be in the mix for any one of those. … It’s so exciting to welcome the world to Utah and showcase our lifestyle and this amazing place we live, and have the world watching. It feels good and it feels right.”

“This is a step in the right direction,” Gov. Gary Herbert added. “Vice presidential debate now, presidential debate tomorrow … the next cycle.”

State officials held a news conference in front of the U.’s Kingsbury Hall — where the debate will be staged — to celebrate the news.

“It’s kind of like we got the Super Bowl of politics,” said Utah Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem. “Utah is officially, with this, no longer a fly-over state” — referring to how traditionally presidential candidates usually fly over the state without stopping.

“People wave as they go by, and we’re not sure they are always waving with all five fingers,” the governor added. “Now we are not going to be ignored, and we are going to have an opportunity to tell the public what’s really good and happening here in Utah.”

Watkins sees staging the debate as prestigious.

“Hosting a debate is a tremendous honor. We're thrilled to be able to showcase the University of Utah and the great state of Utah,” she said. “I'm especially excited for our students who will have the opportunity to participate in an essential part of the political process.”

Wright said he is unsure how many seats at Kingsbury Hall will be available for students and the public, and it depends in part on arrangements made for members of the media (including crews) that the commission expects to come for the event.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “But we definitely want the students at the University of Utah to participate in it. And we want as many people in the state of Utah to participate as well.”

Wright estimates that hosting the debate will cost between $5 million and $6 million — and said details of the spending will be released later. The Legislature earlier this year provided $2.5 million toward the bid and said it might consider more next year if the state actually won. The University of Utah is donating the use of its facilities.

Jason Perry, the U.'s vice president for government relations, added, “There’ll be pretty serious fundraising efforts over the next year to take care of the rest of the costs associated with hosting this event.”

In 2016, a Republican primary presidential debate was scheduled to take place in Utah — but was canceled after then-candidate Donald Trump declined to participate. Trump at the time said he had a conflicting speaking engagement and was tired of the debate format, but his decision was described as a “snub” by Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox.

With a national debate now firmly coming in 2020, Herbert said, "We’re ecstatic about the opportunity.”