Republicans want to pick questions for independent debates? Of course they do, Editorial Board writes

Utah Debate Commission - and Utahns - should not allow one party to hijack one of the few democratic institutions left in this state.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Democrat Kathie Allen, United Utah Party candidate Jim Bennett and Republican John Curtis participate in a debate hosted by the Utah Debate Commission at the KBYU Studios on the BYU campus in Provo, October 18, 2017.

“I am paying for this microphone!”

Ronald Reagan, Feb. 23, 1980

A valuable exception to the overwhelming flood of self-serving messaging from political candidates each election year is the American tradition of televised debates.

They are rare opportunities for voters to hear directly from the candidates, to compare their positions on issues and their public demeanors in a side-by-side forum that, at least in theory, does not favor any one candidate over any other.

That’s why who sponsors and runs the debates matters so much. Who, in the words of then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, is paying for the microphone.

Reagan had balked at participating in a debate just days before the pivotal 1980 New Hampshire presidential primary, a debate sponsored by a local newspaper that wanted to invite only Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The Californian wanted four other Republican candidates to also take part, so he took over sponsorship and funding of the event and, when the original sponsors tried to silence Reagan’s mic for violating the rules, he drew cheers by uttering the line above.

Republicans want to control the debate process

The Utah Republican Party isn’t paying for any microphones in the scheduled debates among candidates for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. But its chairman still wants the party to have some say over who will moderate the debate commission’s events and what questions will be asked.

That’s a particularly bad idea, and the independent Utah Debate Commission should turn it down cold.

The commission’s role in keeping the debates fair and honest, not under the influence of any party or candidate, is one of the few truly democratic institutions that survives in Utah. In no way should it be allowed to come under the thumb of the already super-powerful, gerrymander-protected Utah Republican Party.

Republican Chairman Carson Jorgensen notes, accurately, that debates set for June 1 and 2 among the Republican primary candidates for Congress are, obviously, only for Republicans. And it goes without saying that, in deep red Utah, the winner of the June 28 primary in each contest will have made it nine-tenths of the way to being elected in November.

But that doesn’t mean that the state GOP should be allowed to influence the debate process or decide who asks the candidates what questions. If anything, it makes it even more crucial that such a key milestone in the 2022 campaign be operated by an independent body, an organization that will give us some hope of asking fair and direct questions and not tossing softballs to favored candidates.

Jorgensen has gone so far as to urge Republican candidates to boycott the debates if he doesn’t get his way. As a result, Republican Senate hopeful Ally Isom has expressed a reasonable suspicion that Jorgensen’s plan is to give incumbent — and favorite of the party’s delegates — Mike Lee cover to dodge the forthcoming debate commission forum. If that happened, it would deprive Isom and fellow challenger Becky Edwards of what stands to be a rare opportunity to take Senator Lee on, face-to-face, in a widely watched event. It would allow Lee to escape a rare instance where might be questioned and held to account — by a moderator and by voters.

An election bait and switch in St. George

Speaking of avoiding the judgment of the voters, Utah Republicans may be scheming to effectively void the results of the June 28 primary for the Utah House of Representatives District 73. That is where state Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, has announced that he will resign his seat effective July 1 because, he says, he is moving out of the district.

The effective date of Seegmiller’s resignation is right after the primary. Assuming his name remains on the ballot, and enough voters either don’t know that Seegmiller is quitting or don’t care, he might still win renomination over two challengers. And, as there is no Democrat running for that seat, a Seegmiller primary victory would instantly create a vacancy that would be filled, for the whole two-year term, not by the voters of District 73, or even by the Republican voters of that district, but by a handful of party delegates.

Maybe that’s not a plot by a few party insiders to keep control over that legislative seat. But, if they were to hatch a scheme to keep the voters out of the room while the decision is made, it would look a lot like that.

Political parties that win elections have earned the ability to make a lot of policy decisions. But their ability to determine who will conduct, who will run in, and who will win, the next election must be balanced by traditions and institutions such as the Utah Debate Commission. Otherwise, we’re not a republic or a democracy. We’re a one-party state.