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GOP will skip on the Utah Debate Commission to keep their primary debates in-house

Utah Debate Commission, empty debate stage, June 2020
Courtesy Utah Debate Commission
The Utah Debate Commission says their events will go on as scheduled, Meanwhile, the GOP is still working out the details of their 2022 primary debates.

The candidate debates for Utah’s primary elections are coming up, and the state’s Republican Party has thrown the nonpartisan, independent Utah Debate Commission a curveball.

GOP Chair Carson Jorgensen recently pushed for more control over the Commission’s events because only Republican candidates are on the ballot for the U.S. Senate and House.

Now, the party will host their own “old-fashioned debates” — probably in a high school auditorium — to ask questions of candidates that “highlight Republican platforms and Republican principles.”

“This is not a general election debate,” Jorgensen said. “This is Republicans deciding on a Republican candidate. For a general election, that is where a bipartisan debate commission comes in that's independent. But in a primary debate, this is a completely different thing.”

Erik Nielsen, executive director of the Utah Debate Commission, said, as far as he’s aware, a state party hasn’t stepped in like this before. They’ve been hosting debates since 2014 and started producing primary debates in 2018.

“The Utah Debate Commission has never claimed to have a monopoly on debates,” Nielsen said. “Our point of view is that any time you can get candidates standing on stage, side by side, talking about the issues, it's a good thing. Our debates, though, we have a certain standard that we try to establish. And I think we have a track record proving that our debates are nonpartisan, they’re independent and they’re fair.”

Regardless of who hosts them, pollster and Brigham Young University political scientist Quin Monson said candidate debates don’t really sway public opinion.

“A lot of times nobody's watching or listening,” Monson said. “So the audience for these is not necessarily large. The other reason is the people that are watching have kind of made up their minds already.”

There are exceptions, Monson said, like if a candidate makes a big mistake that generates media attention. He suggested that could happen with incumbent Sen. Mike Lee, especially if a moderator pushed him on his involvement in trying to overturn the 2020 election.

Maybe that's part of why the party is stepping in,” he said. “Because they want to control the questions.”

Even if debates don’t change people’s minds, Ryan Smith, president of the Utah State University College Republicans, believes there’s still value in having them.

“It's about the principle that we have debates because we want that transparency,” Smith said. “We want that accountability for incumbents and those that are running, that they have to get up, they have to speak so that voters can understand point blank, what do you believe on this.”

The Utah Debate Commission says their events will go on as scheduled, Meanwhile, the GOP is still working out the details of their debates.

The primary election is on June 28, and county clerks will start mailing out ballots on June 7.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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