Perish any thought that Sen. Mike Lee might skip out on debates before November’s election. Earlier this year, Lee’s campaign spent more than $13,000 to hire Mary Maseng Will’s firm Maseng Communications for “debate preparation services.” Along with Lee, Maseng counts former presidential candidates Scott Walker, John McCain, Bob Dole, Rick Perry and Sen. Ted Cruz among their clientele.
A mini-controversy erupted earlier this week when independent challenger Evan McMullin accused Lee’s campaign of missing a deadline to agree on a date for a debate sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission and suggested Lee might “shirk off” the debate.
Behind the scenes, the Utah Debate Commission had initially scheduled the debate for Oct. 4, which they later realized was Yom Kippur. After discovering their “grievous error,” they tentatively moved the debate to Oct. 3. Still, they offered candidates the opportunity to choose from a list of other possible dates, according to an email shared with The Tribune.
Erik Nielsen, executive director of the Utah Debate Commission, advised candidates that they had to consider the venue’s availability at Utah Valley University, schedule conflicts with broadcast partners and other pre-election debates around the state.
“It is in the best interest of the citizens of Utah to hold this debate. If we cannot come to a consensus on a date after exhausting all options, we will hold the forum on Monday, October 3rd at 6:00 PM for all candidates who are willing and able to attend,” Nielsen wrote.
In a follow-up email to The Tribune, Nielsen said he had “full confidence” they would find a date that works for everyone.
“In my communication with the Lee campaign, they have told me they are going to participate in our debate. They did not meet the deadline I requested for submitting dates, but they told me they were shifting Senate calendar work around to accommodate us,” Nielsen said. Lee confirmed as much on Thursday evening.
“I look forward to debating Evan McMullin on the important issues facing our country,” Lee tweeted from his official campaign account.
McMullin tweeted that he was glad Lee “finally committed to debate me.”
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report shifted its rating for the Lee/McMullin matchup last week, moving it from “solid Republican” to “likely Republican.”
It’s not the Utah Debate Commission’s first scheduling snafu. The organization scheduled a series of Republican debates ahead of the June primary election, but several candidates complained the dates were picked without consulting them.
Rep. John Curtis was not scheduled to be in the country for his primary debate against challenger Chris Herrod. A spokesperson for his campaign said they only found out about the date from a news release.
The Utah Republican Party threw a wrench in the primary debate schedule when chairman Carson Jorgensen demanded the commission give the GOP input on the questions to be asked and which moderators are selected.
Jorgensen argued the primary election’s purpose is to pick the party’s nominee, so the GOP should play a role. When the commission refused, Jorgensen set up a series of party-sponsored debates. Lee only took part in the GOP-sponsored event.
Jorgensen said Friday he did not have plans to make a similar demand for the general election debates.
In addition to the U.S. Senate debate, the commission has scheduled four other congressional debates ahead of November’s election:
The 3rd District debate is Thursday, Oct. 6, at Brigham Young University.
1st District candidates will face off Monday, Oct. 10, at Weber State University.
The University of Utah hosts the 4th District debate on Wednesday, Oct. 12.
The 2nd District is Friday, Oct. 14, at Southern Utah University.