Utah GOP wants a say on topics and moderators for next month’s Republican primary debates

Ally Isom accused Sen. Mike Lee of hiding behind the Utah GOP to avoid debating with her.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Republican Party chair Carson Jorgensen says the party should help select the questions and moderators for next month's televised primary election debates for Congress.

The Utah Republican Party wants a say in choosing topics and the moderators for next month’s GOP primary election debates for Congress. They are urging candidates not to participate until those conditions are met.

All four Republican incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives and Sen. Mike Lee face primary opponents this year. The Utah Debate Commission scheduled the five televised debates for June 1 and 2.

Party Chairman Carson Jorgensen believes the Utah GOP should co-host those debates since all candidates are Republicans.

“It simply doesn’t make sense for the debate commission to decide what issues will be discussed and who will ask the questions,” Jorgensen said. “This is a Republican primary to be voted in by registered Republican voters.”

Ally Isom, one of two Republican primary opponents for Lee, accused the two-term incumbent of hiding behind the Utah GOP to avoid the televised debate.

“Late yesterday I was informed Lee may not be available for the upcoming June 2 candidate debate, hosted by the Utah Debate Commission. Then last night I got the word the Utah Republican Party may be providing Lee air cover for his sudden unavailability. I’ve been in politics long enough to know a scheme when I smell one,” Isom said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Lee’s campaign said Isom’s accusation was not true, and they were just starting to consider Lee’s pre-primary schedule.

Jorgensen says he is not telling candidates to skip the debates altogether, just not agree to participate until the party is included in the process.

“We want fair debates with topics that matter to Republican primary voters. It is important that Republicans — and only Republicans — take the lead in how these debates take shape,” Jorgensen said in a text message Wednesday morning.

Candidates met with the Debate Commission this week and were reportedly given 48 hours to accept or decline the debate invitation. If a campaign declined, they were informed the debates would go on without them. The identity of the moderators would be disclosed only after candidates responded to the invitation.

The Utah Debate Commission told The Salt Lake Tribune that candidates agreed to respond within 48 hours and that moderators would be named at that time. The commission also responded to the Utah GOP’s request through a press release on Wednesday morning.

“As always,” the statement reads, “we are working with all candidates and are committed to providing nonpartisan and independent debates as a public service for all citizens of Utah.”

The state party is following the lead of the Republican National Committee which voted unanimously in April to withdraw from the Commission on Presidential Debates. The RNC has accused the commission of being biased in favor of Democrats.