Documents show why Mike Lee and Evan McMullin’s debate was full of Lee’s supporters

Lee’s staffers, supporters and family reserved tickets to this year’s U.S. Senate debate hours before McMullin’s team was made aware the reservation link was live.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) From left, Sen. Mike Lee and independent challenger Evan McMullin participate in a debate ahead of the election for U.S. Senate at Utah Valley University, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2022. According to records obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, Lee's supports had an hours-long head start to make reservations to the debate before McMullin's campaign knew the reservation link was live.

The crowd at this fall’s U.S. Senate debate between Republican Mike Lee and independent candidate Evan McMullin at Utah Valley University was rooting for the senator, with most attendees loudly cheering Lee and jeering McMullin.

The pro-Lee attendees were so disruptive at times that moderator Doug Wright of KSL Radio repeatedly asked the crowd to refrain from interrupting the debate.

It appears the Lee crowd wasn’t by accident.

According to documents obtained through an open records request by The Salt Lake Tribune, Lee’s closest advisors and supporters reserved tickets to the Oct. 17 U.S. Senate debate — the only debate between the senator and McMullin — hours before the McMullin’s campaign and fans were aware the reservation website was active.

On Sept. 26, three weeks before the debate, an employee with the Utah Valley University ticketing website shared a link to the upcoming event with Utah Debate Commission executive director Erik Nielsen, the records show. At the time, the link was just a mock-up, but it would eventually become the link for the general public to sign up for the event.

Nielsen explained to UVU that he would hold 100 tickets for campaigns, VIPs and the media.

On Sept. 29, Lyndi Robertson, UVU’s associate director of events and campus scheduling, joined the email thread asking when the ticketing link would be live because “we have a lot of community members reaching out.”

The following day, Justin Jones, the executive director of the Gary Herbert Institute of Public Policy, which co-hosted the debate, emailed Jay DeSart, chair of the History and Political Science Department, that “Sen. Lee’s campaign manager is also asking about ticketing for the debate.”

DeSart replied that the debate commission “automatically sets aside tickets for the campaigns,” and Lee’s team should work with Erik Nielsen, the commission’s executive director, to secure those tickets.

On Oct. 4 at 1:43 pm, the UVU ticketing office emailed Robertson to tell her the link was live. DeSart received a similar email 5 minutes later.

Within minutes, Lee’s staffers, former staffers, campaign workers, family members, close associates and supporters acted, snapping up hundreds of tickets in the next few hours and packing the audience with his supporters before McMullin’s team was aware the link was live.

The Ragan Theater at UVU seats approximately 400.

All in-person tickets for the event set aside for the public were spoken for by 4:30 pm. All that remained were tickets to watch the event online.

Nielsen, with the debate commission, emailed the link to Matt Lusty, Lee’s campaign manager, and Andrew Roberts, who leads McMullin’s campaign, at 6:41 pm. That was the first time, according to records and a statement from Neilson, the debate organizer shared the ticketing link with either campaign.

Lee Lonsberry, Lee’s Senate communications director, was the first Lee supporter to get tickets on the UVU website at 1:50 pm. He secured a second pair of seats a few minutes after that.

One minute after Lonsberry, Allyson Bell, Lee’s chief of staff, got seats, as did former staffers.

Lusty got a pair of seats to the debate 3 minutes after Lonsberry.

Lee’s family members, including his wife, brother, sister and son, secured at least 10 of the approximately 300 seats available to the public. Other Lee supporters who got tickets shortly after the link went live included Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka. Chad Saunders, who was featured in a Club for Growth ad attacking McMullin, was also able to get tickets.

The Tribune identified more than a dozen current and former Lee staffers and interns who snapped up tickets in the first 30 minutes after the link went live.

When asked how Lee’s campaign could access tickets nearly five hours before the debate commission sent them the link, Lusty chalked it up to luck and being organized.

“We checked the website regularly to see when the tickets would be available. That’s what an organized campaign does,” Lusty said.

Roberts told The Tribune the outreach from the debate commission was the first time the McMullin campaign was informed the link to get tickets was live.

Roberts was the first person the Tribune could link to McMullin that got tickets, which he did at 6:47 pm. Those tickets were only for virtual participants.

UVU officials did not respond to a request for comment.

In the closing weeks of the race, Fox News host Bret Baier offered to host a second debate between Lee and McMullin on his primetime program. McMullin’s campaign agreed to the event, but Lee’s team balked, only offering a one-on-one interview with Baier instead of sharing the stage with McMullin.