The behind-the-scenes wrangling ahead of Utah’s primary elections over Republican congressional debates is about as messy as a Jackson Pollock masterpiece.
A once-promising slate of five GOP debates for the U.S. Senate and House has fallen by the wayside, with most incumbents opting out of the televised events sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission. The Utah Republican Party — the instigator of the debate chaos — has jumped in to fill some, but not all, of the resulting vacuum.
So far, the only incumbent who has committed to appearing at the events organized by the Debate Commission is 1st Congressional District Rep. Blake Moore. He will share the stage with two Republican challengers, Andrew Badger and Tina Cannon. In April, Badger secured his spot in the primary election by winning the most support from GOP delegates at the state convention. Moore and Cannon each submitted enough signatures to qualify for the primary. As of now, none of the other incumbents are set to participate.
Utah Republican Party chairman Carson Jorgensen spoiled the Debate Commission’s planning, insisting the GOP should help decide what topics are discussed and who moderates the debates since all of the candidates are Republicans and the primary elections are to pick the party’s nominees. Commission leaders rejected Jorgensen’s argument, asserting they are an independent organization. As a result, the Utah GOP is pushing ahead with plans to host its own debates.
As it stands now, none of the other incumbents are participating in the Debate Commission forums.
Rep. John Curtis, from Utah’s 3rd congressional district, has a scheduling conflict with the Debate Commission event — he is traveling internationally as part of his work in Congress. The Commission proposed a remote option to allow for Curtis’ participation, but his opponent, Chris Herrod, balked. Instead, Herrod will be the only candidate taking part in the Debate Commission event on June 1, moderated by Natalie Gochnour, Director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Center at the University of Utah.
The Utah GOP is planning on at least two pre-primary debates. Curtis and Herrod will take the stage for the first, scheduled for May 31 at Brigham Young University. Sen. Mike Lee will debate Becky Edwards and Ally Isom on June 1 at a location still to be determined. Lee previously said he would only take part in the GOP debate.
“We’re not taking that as a no,” Erik Nielsen, executive director of the Utah Debate Commission, said of Lee’s decision. “We’re hoping he comes around and joins us for our debate, which will be nonpartisan and impartial.”
Reps. Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens have not yet signaled whether they plan to participate in either a Debate Commission or GOP-hosted debate. If they decline, Erin Rider and Jake Hunsaker will be the lone candidates on the debate stage for the 2nd and 4th Congressional Districts.
The Utah GOP is reportedly having difficulty finding moderators. Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz was on the party’s shortlist, but scheduling was a roadblock to his participation. Nolan Karras, a former Utah House Speaker, was also floated as a possibility, but he had donated a substantial amount of money to one of the candidates, which drew objections to his possible inclusion.
The Debate Commission has irked several incumbents with plans to have an empty podium on the stage if they don’t show up. Nielsen says the open spots are not meant to shame the congressmen, but to allow for the possibility of a last-minute change of heart.
On Tuesday, the commission named its five moderators Tuesday morning. Those debates will be hosted on Wednesday, June 1 and Thursday, June 2.
Salt Lake Tribune Managing Editor Grant Burningham with host the 2nd Congressional District debate on June 1 at 10 a.m.
Natalie Gochnour, an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, will host the 3rd Congressional District debate on June 1 at 1 p.m.
Jason Perry, the vice president for Government Relations and the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, will host the 4th Congressional District debate on June 1 at 6 p.m.
Former Utah GOP gubernatorial candidate Thomas Wright will host the 1st Congressional District debate on June 2 at 2 p.m.
Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks will host the U.S. Senate debate on June 2 at 6 p.m.
The five Republican congressional primary elections are the most in a single year in Utah history, mainly because the 4th Congressional District did not exist before 2012.
Editor’s note • Tribune Managing Editor Grant Burningham is a registered independent and does not live or vote in Utah’s 2nd Congressional District.