Republican incumbent Sen. Mike Lee has turned down an opportunity to participate in a nationally televised, Fox News-hosted debate with independent challenger Evan McMullin.
While Lee has made several individual Fox News appearances over the past several weeks to drum up support for his unexpectedly close reelection bid and to attack his opponent, the senator declined the opportunity to appear on the national program alongside his competition.
Fox News host Bret Baier contacted both the Lee and McMullin campaigns the same week the two men took the stage for the U.S. Senate debate sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission. Baier’s team proposed bringing the “Special Report with Bret Baier” program to Utah on Nov. 1.
McMullin’s campaign told The Salt Lake Tribune that they spoke with Baier and his production staff several times about the offer, agreeing to a second debate with Lee during a phone call with Baier on Oct. 21. Later that same day, Baier called back to inform McMullin that Lee had declined, the campaign said.
A Fox News spokesperson confirmed that McMullin accepted their debate offer and that Lee declined to participate.
A spokesperson for Lee’s campaign said the initial pitch from Baier was either a joint appearance with McMullin or one-on-one interviews with the two candidates back-to-back. They told Baier they would only agree to a separate interview.
According to an email shared with The Tribune from McMullin’s campaign, the initial pitch from Baier’s team suggested “a debate or town hall.” The email makes no mention of separate one-on-one interviews.
Lee’s campaign declined to comment on the record.
Fox News programs have been friendly territory for Lee recently.
Earlier this month, Lee appeared as a guest on Tucker Carlson’s primetime show, where he begged Mitt Romney for his endorsement, and recently sat down with Fox News Sunday for an interview. On Tuesday night, Lee traveled to Las Vegas to participate in a Fox News town hall for U.S. Senate candidate Adam Laxalt hosted by Sean Hannity.
In a statement to The Tribune, McMullin harshly criticized Lee’s decision to turn down the debate.
“It’s a shame that Senator Lee can’t find the time to debate me on Fox News. Utahns deserve a full airing of the issues in this race, but Utahns won’t get that chance because Senator Lee won’t show up to defend his record,” McMullin said.
“I hope Senator Lee reconsiders his refusal to debate,” McMullin added.
The possibility of Baier coming to Utah on Nov. 1 is off the table. Instead, he and Fox News host Martha McCallum will host a town hall in Ohio featuring Republican U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance and Democrat Tim Ryan.