There’s no place like home. Three Republican congressional incumbents have opted to stay within the warm embrace of the Utah GOP for what is likely their only debate ahead of the June 28 primary election.
Sen. Mike Lee and Reps. Chris Stewart and John Curtis will participate in a trio of debates sponsored by the Utah Republican Party, shunning the debates sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission. Rep. Blake Moore is the only incumbent who has thus far agreed to attend the CD1 forum put on by the independent Debate Commission. Rep. Burgess Owens has not yet decided to participate in any pre-primary debates.
On Friday night at Brigham Young University, the GOP-sponsored CD3 debate between Rep. John Curtis and Chris Herrod kicks off a hectic slate of 8 debates or candidate forums. The Republican debate between Rep. Chris Stewart and Erin Rider is set to air on KNRS radio Tuesday, May 31 at 6 p.m. The GOP-led U.S. Senate debate with Lee, Ally Isom and Becky Edwards is set for the evening of June 1, with the venue TBA. Utah Republican Party Chair Carson Jorgensen will moderate the House District 2 and U.S. Senate debate, while KNRS host Rod Arquette will steer the House District 2 discussion.
Jorgensen explained his turn as debate moderator comes at the behest of the campaigns.
“All campaigns were asked to submit four names of moderators they would be agreeable to. We then took the names that crossed over with the most candidates in the race and decided on a moderator,” Jorgensen said in a news release.
Park City-based political consultant Reed Galen, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, suggested the Utah GOP jumped into the debate fray to shelter party members from facing what could be uncomfortable questions.
“(They) must live in the fantasyland Republicans have created for themselves. To step outside their reality distortion field risks real questions requiring real answers and consequences,” Galen said.
The Debate Commission’s events for House Districts 3 and 4 will take place on June 1 but will likely only have challengers on the stage. The House District 1 and 2 and U.S. Senate discussions are scheduled for the following day.
Friday’s event came about due to a scheduling conflict for Curtis, who is scheduled to leave on a congressional-related international trip the following morning. The Debate Commission proposed a virtual format so Curtis could debate Chris Herrod, but Herrod objected. This is the third time Curtis and Herrod have faced off in a primary election. In 2018, Curtis easily dispatched Herrod by 46 points. In the three-way special election primary to replace Jason Chaffetz in 2017, Curtis won the nomination with 43% to Herrod’s 32%, while Tanner Ainge was third with 24%.
Jorgensen and the Utah GOP blew the Debate Commissions plans for five pre-primary debates by insisting they should help decide the questions and moderators since the candidates and voters in the primary elections are exclusively Republicans. Jorgensen’s request was rebuffed, prompting the party to strike out independently.
It remains a mystery why Lee and Stewart decided to eschew the independent debates for the GOP-sponsored events. Their respective campaigns did not respond to questions from The Salt Lake Tribune.
Stewart is facing his first-ever primary election challenge, securing the Utah GOP nomination outright at the convention in his five previous campaigns. It’s Lee’s first primary since 2010, when he narrowly defeated Tim Bridgewater.