Republican Rep. Burgess Owens will debate a political opponent for the first time in more than two years when he and Democrat Darlene McDonald meet on Friday.
The two candidates, running to represent Utah’s 4th Congressional District, have agreed to a debate on Oct. 28, at 5 pm. But with days until the faceoff, and only two weeks until Election Day, a point of contention hangs over Friday’s event: will a third-party candidate be invited?
United Utah Party nominee January Walker narrowly qualified for a debate sponsored by the non-partisan Utah Debate Commission earlier this month but has not been invited to participate Friday.
That invitation will likely not materialize over recent social media posts by Walker.
As the Republican and Democratic campaigns worked to hammer out the details of Friday’s debate, McDonald’s team was pleading with the leaders of the United Utah Party to ask Walker to dial back her efforts on social media to be included.
According to recordings of those phone conversations shared with The Salt Lake Tribune, McDonald’s campaign repeatedly asked United Utah Party officials for help, asking that Walker remove some of her posts for fear it could lead to violence.
“It would do her good to make sure some of those posts are gone. On every social media platform, she’s hating everything about everything, and it’s not really productive. There are times in the past, especially with candidates of color, where that can turn to actual physical violence,” said Anders Moumoulidis, McDonald’s campaign manager, in one recording.
“I honestly think the easiest way to diffuse all that is to give her an invitation,” Hillary Stirling, United Utah Party Chair, replied.
In another recording, Moumoulidis explains to United Utah Party Vice Chair Wayne Woodfield that Walker’s social media posts were not helping her case to be included and suggested she stop “spinning up” her supporters.
“I wonder if she has the emotional maturity to go down this very reasonable road that you’ve laid out,” Woodfield replied.
Both Stirling and Woodfield did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement provided to The Tribune, McDonald condemned Walker’s behavior on social media and pointed out she hasn’t contacted either campaign to ask to be included.
“Over the past few weeks, my opponent Ms. Walker has engaged in personal attacks against me with falsehoods so ridiculous that I won’t bother even mentioning them here. Her objective seems to be to get an invitation to debate. She’s made false claims, proposed silly conspiracy theories, and accused both of her opponents of some pretty bizarre things. What she hasn’t done is take the most basic step of securing an invitation — simply calling to ask to participate,” McDonald said.
The Tribune asked Walker if she’d been told her social media post were preventing her participation Friday.
“I am under the impression the reluctance is because Burgess Owens is afraid to meet me on a debate stage,” Walker replied, adding that the Democratic candidate didn’t pose a threat after redistricting.
On Tuesday, Walker posted an image of Owens’ declaration of candidacy form on Twitter, a document that included the phone number of a campaign worker. She said the phone number belonged to Owens and encouraged her supporters to call, saying, “You know what to do.”
In reality, that phone number belongs to Owens’ former campaign manager, who left after the primary election, a spokesperson for Owen’s campaign said. They told The Tribune that the individual is a private citizen now who is talking with an attorney to figure out how to get Walker’s supporters to stop calling them.
When Owens declined last minute to participate in the Utah Debate Commission event earlier this month, citing his objection to The Tribune’s executive editor Lauren Gustus as moderator and his frustrations with an editorial cartoon published by the paper last year, he invited McDonald to join him for a debate at town hall meetings on Oct. 22 and 29.
When the rescheduled debate was first announced, one of the conditions for Owens was that The Tribune would be blocked from attending or taking part.
“Our condition was that the Tribune didn’t play a role in the debate,” Owens campaign spokesperson Adam Jones said in an e-mail Tuesday. He added that since The Tribune is not involved in selecting questions for the event, there’s no conflict.
The event will be moderated by James Curry, a University of Utah associate professor of political science. Curry said he agreed to moderate because it’s important the two congressional candidates meet in a civil debate.
“It’s just important for our democracy that candidates have to face each other to talk about the issues, to answer each other’s challenges, to go on record on the issues and to be in the same room rather than just sniping at each other through campaign ads and Super PACs and things like television ads,” the political scientist said.
Both Republican and Democratic party candidates will livestream the debate from their social media accounts and the media has been invited to cover the event, according to a Tuesday news release from McDonald’s campaign.