Sen. Mike Lee won’t attend independent debate and faces Senate challengers Edwards, Isom for the last time

Mike Lee, Becky Edwards and Ally Isom hit the stage in a debate sponsored by the Utah GOP.

On Wednesday night, a middle school auditorium in Draper was the center of the Utah political universe. The three Republicans vying for the party’s U.S. Senate nomination took the debate stage for the first and likely only time ahead of the June primary election.

Wednesday’s event was notable for the questions not asked rather than what was discussed. Since the Utah Republican Party selected the questions as part of a forum sponsored by the GOP, that shouldn’t be surprising. There was a question about banning the use of environmental, social and governance (ESG) scores before mentioning last week’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. More discussion of government control of public lands than the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade.

None of that is unusual. It was a Republican debate with Republican candidates for a Republican audience. Since the GOP primary is closed to only registered Republicans, Democrats and independents need not apply.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Mike Lee at the Republican Senate primary debate in Draper on Wednesday, June 1, 2022.

Because of the Republican hegemony on the stage, the candidates mostly agreed on several issues. Federal ownership of public lands in Utah? They were opposed. High gas prices and inflation? It’s President Joe Biden’s fault but could be remedied by increased energy production on those same federal lands.

There were a few differences, too. Following a question about the leaked draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, the candidates staked out the different rhetorical grounds. Lee did not back away from his support for overturning Roe, believing the 1973 decision by the Supreme Court to legalize abortion was wrongly decided in the first place.

“There’s nothing in the Constitution that prohibits a government from protecting the unborn,” Lee said. “If the Supreme Court is on the verge of overturning that unfortunate and wrong precedent, I applaud it.”

Edwards disagreed, saying she saw no reason to revisit the decision right now.

“We have to have conversations that are meaningful and thoughtful on the issue. I don’t see a compelling issue to overturn Roe right now,” Edwards said. “If this is overturned, I support efforts to support women’s health and support children.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Becky Edwards at the Republican Senate primary debate in Draper on Wednesday, June 1, 2022.

Isom said this issue is a good reason to elect women to bring their perspective to the Senate.

“This is a very complex issue and for every woman. I’m for family planning and for improvements in the way we talk about sexual education with our children,” Isom said. “We have to do everything we can to prevent unwanted pregnancy in the first place.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ally Isom at the Republican Senate primary debate in Draper on Wednesday, June 1, 2022.

There was just one question about guns following the massacre at an elementary school in Texas last week. Lee suggested social media companies had a responsibility to better police users who post violent threats online.

“I think they need to figure out who is going to do this and then report it to authorities,” Lee said. “If they won’t do it on their own, we will make them.”

Both Isom and Edwards realized this was likely their only chance to take on Lee face-to-face, and they took advantage of the opportunity, leveling criticisms against the two-term incumbent.

“I’m sick and tired of career politicians who will say anything to get reelected. I’m sick and tired of career politicians who will sponsor bills with catchy titles that make for great cable TV but never get them across the finish line,” Isom said. “What I want to see here is action.”

“Some people have been focusing on balancing the federal budget for, let’s say, 12 years. And yet we sit here still with ineffective leadership on that issue,” Edwards said. “We are no better off than we were 12 years ago.”