Mike Lee’s campaign’s early access to 2022 Senate debate tickets was an ‘unfortunate miscommunication,’ audit finds

An audit by the Utah Debate Commission confirms previous reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune that Lee’s camp snapped up most of the public tickets before Evan McMullin supporters knew tickets were available.

(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. An audit by the Utah Debate Commission finds that Lee's campaign was aware of online ticket availability hours before McMullin's campaign.

The decidedly pro-Mike Lee crowd at the U.S. Senate debate between the Republican incumbent and independent candidate Evan McMullin last October was no accident.

An audit of ticketing procedures by the Utah Debate Commission found Lee’s team gained access to tickets for the event more than five hours before the McMullin campaign, which allowed them to pack the room with supporters.

The commission found no foul play, but that the ticketing snafu was the result of “an unfortunate miscommunication.”

The crowd at Utah Valley University was sometimes so disruptive, often cheering Lee and razzing McMullin, that debate moderator Doug Wright of KSL Radio had to repeatedly scold the audience. That disproportionately pro-Lee mix in the audience prompted an examination of the debate commission’s ticketing process.

The debate commission’s review, which mirrors previous reporting from The Salt Lake Tribune, showed Lee’s team became aware that the link to request tickets was available to the public several hours before the Utah Debate Commission officially informed both campaigns. Lee’s campaign pounced, snapping up most of the 300 tickets set aside for the public.

The review, conducted by commission treasurer Phil Cooper, found that the website for ordering tickets went public at approximately 1:20 p.m. on Oct. 4, 2022. An hour later, 93% of the tickets for the general public had been claimed. The remaining public tickets were gone more than two hours before the commission informed the two campaigns that tickets were available.

“I could not verify from the reservation list that all In-Person General Public ticket reservations were connected to the Lee campaign. However, based on the makeup of the audience, the intensity of the ticketing activity starting at 1:50 PM, and reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune, it appears that most, if not all, of the available In-Person General Public tickets, were reserved by people affiliated with the Lee campaign within the first three hours,” Cooper wrote in the review.

At 6:48 p.m. that day, commission executive director Erik Nielsen sent an email to the Lee and McMullin campaigns that the ticketing website was available. Unknown to Nielsen, all the public tickets were already gone. The remaining 100 seats had been set aside for the campaigns, VIPs and the media.

The Tribune obtained a list of all those who requested tickets through the UVU website and identified more than a dozen current and former Lee staffers and interns who grabbed tickets within the first 30 minutes they were available. Lee’s family members, including his wife, brother, sister and son, secured at least ten tickets.

Lee’s chief of staff, Allyson Bell, communications director Lee Lonsberry, and campaign manager Matt Lusty also snapped up several seats. Prominent Lee supporters like Eagle Forum Gayle Ruzicka and Chad Saunders, who was featured in a Club for Growth ad attacking McMullin, also secured seats.

That was apparently not by accident.

“In the weeks leading up to the debate, the Lee campaign was very assertive in their attempts to monitor when tickets would be available,” Cooper wrote in his summary.

While the crowd disparity may have given Lee an unfair advantage in the only debate with McMullin, the commission found no evidence of foul play, chalking up the incident to “an unfortunate miscommunication.”

“I found no evidence that the Lee campaign was ‘tipped off,’ received inappropriate inside information or received advance notice of the timing for ticket availability,” Cooper concluded.

Neither Lee’s nor McMullin’s campaign immediately respond to a request for comment.

Moving forward, the Utah Debate Commission is proposing several reforms for the 2024 election cycle. Those include setting aside a larger number of seats for university students, faculty and employees, publicly announcing the date and time that tickets will be available to the public and creating a policy to control unruly crowds.

The ticketing snafu was one of several challenges for the commission during the 2022 election cycle. Most Republican congressional candidates refused to participate in pre-primary debates sponsored by the commission, opting for events hosted by the Utah Republican Party. Rep. Burgess Owens ducked out of both of the commission’s 4th Congressional District debates last year.