Debate frustration: Utah GOP will host candidate debates independent of the Utah Debate Commission

‘Primary elections are partisan,’ Party Chair Carson Jorgensen says.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Candidates meet for a 2nd Congressional District debate between J. Robert Latham (L), Chris Stewart (R) and Kael Weston (D), at KSL Studio in Salt Lake City, on Monday, October 19, 2020. The Utah GOP is hosting debates independent from the Utah Debate Commission after their request to have input on topics and moderators were rebuffed.

Can partisan goals coexist with political independence? Not in Utah in 2022.

Utah Republican Party Chair Carson Jorgensen says they’re at loggerheads with the Utah Debate Commission, so they’re planning to sponsor their own primary debates for Republican candidates for U.S. Senate and Congress.

Earlier this week, Jorgensen threw a wrench in the Commission’s plans for five pre-primary televised debates, asserting the party should have a say in the topics and moderators.

“They told me they were an independent organization, and they aren’t moving off that position,” Jorgensen said.

The Debate Commission was formed in 2014 and represents all of the major media outlets in Utah. (Lauren Gustus, Salt Lake Tribune Executive Editor, is a member of the board). The Commission sponsored pre-primary debates in 2018 and 2020 without any controversy.

Jorgensen, who took the reins of the Utah GOP in 2021, says primary debates are purely partisan exercises. The contests are to decide who gets the party nomination in November. Only registered Republicans can cast a ballot, so why shouldn’t the party play a role in shaping those debates?

“I have always held the view that the party should work their own primary cycle. Many candidates feel that way as well. We believe the party should have input on these debates,” Jorgensen said.

The Commission disagreed, leading to the current standoff.

Republicans were upset the Commission gave candidates a deadline to commit to the June 1 and 2 forums and were informed moderators would be announced after the lineups were set. The dates were picked without any input from the candidates.

Rep. John Curtis won’t even be in the United States on those days. He committed to a foreign trip as part of his Congressional work in January. A spokesperson for his campaign says they reached out to the Commission right after the April convention to try and pick a date for the event. They learned about the schedule from a news release.

Erik Nielsen, executive director for the Commission, says they plan on holding their debates no matter which candidates show up.

“We are going forward with our debates. We’ll get our participation as it is,” Nielsen said.

The five Debate Commission events are set to be televised. Jorgensen said he’s hoping the party events will find a broadcast home. They’ll be livestreamed at the very least.

Debates can allow little-known challengers to appeal to voters and even make incumbents look bad. In 2012, Mitt Romney caught an unprepared Barack Obama off guard in their first presidential debate and was able to gain ground against the incumbent.

The high-profile U.S. Senate primary will be the most impacted by the debate flap. Two-term incumbent Mike Lee faces a challenge from Becky Edwards and Ally Isom. Isom accused Lee of hiding behind the state party to avoid debating — a charge Jorgensen flatly denies.

Lee’s campaign said late Friday they’ve committed to the GOP event.

“Sen. Lee will participate in the primary debate sanctioned by the Utah Republican Party,” Matt Lusty, Lee’s campaign manager, said in a text message.

It’s not clear whether Lee will also participate in the event sponsored by the Commission. Lusty did not respond to questions seeking clarification.

Edwards’ campaign committed to the Commission’s debates earlier this week and welcomed any opportunity to share the stage with Lee.

“We’ve been in close touch with party leadership and have indicated our support for them and their desire to host their own debate. We encourage the GOP to consider dates that won’t conflict with the Utah Debate Commissions’s already scheduled debates and look forward to confirming our participation once an official invitation has been extended,” a spokesperson for Edwards said.

Isom also is eager to debate Lee.

“I will debate anytime and anywhere. Utah voters deserve to know what their choice is. They tell me they want the truth, and they want accountability,” Isom said.

Erin Rider, the first-ever primary opponent for Rep. Chris Stewart in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, supports the party’s involvement in the debates.

“As a Republican candidate, I’m disappointed that the Utah Debate Commission is unwilling to include the Party in organizing Republican primary debates. I believe that elected officials should be accountable to their voters, and I look forward to participating in all upcoming debates,” Rider said.

Jake Hunsaker, the primary foe for freshman Rep. Burgess Owens in the 4th District, says candidates should debate the issues in whatever forum is available.

“I welcome all opportunities to discuss the important issues of Utah with my opponent so that voters can make informed decisions when they cast their ballot,” Hunsaker said.

First District Rep. Blake Moore, who Andrew Badger and Tina Cannon are challenging, committed to debating his opponents, but did not say when or where that debate will take place.

“Congressman Moore has a clear vision for America and is happy to debate his challengers on the issues.” Peter Watkins, Moore campaign strategist, said in a statement.