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Rather than spar, the GOP governor’s debate focused on Cox and Lyman’s vision of Utah

Incumbent Gov. Spencer Cox speaks as he debates with Utah Rep. Phil Lyman during Utah’s gubernatorial GOP primary debate held at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.
Isaac Hale
/
Deseret News, Pool
Incumbent Gov. Spencer Cox speaks as he debates with Utah Rep. Phil Lyman during Utah’s gubernatorial GOP primary debate held at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.

The choice ahead of Republican voters following the relatively tame affair of the GOP governor’s primary debate isn’t as diametric as imagined.

On one hand, there’s incumbent Spencer Cox, an unapologetic cheerleader for the state who’s “proud of Utah” and what it has accomplished in his first term. On the other is challenger Rep. Phil Lyman, who portrayed himself as a leader who wouldn’t shy away from telling people the “harsh reality” of government. To him, Utah can do better by shifting power away from a top-down model — both federally and at the state level.

The June 11 debate organized by the Utah Debate Commission leaped from water to housing, immigration to public lands and even on state investments in the new NHL hockey team and pursuit of the Olympics. On more than one occasion, the candidates found themselves in agreement.

Cox touted legislative accomplishments during his first term, including record tax cuts, a landmark school voucher program and taking on social media giants like TikTok and Meta in court.

“I've never been more optimistic about who we are and what we can accomplish when we work together,” he said.

Lyman was more suspicious of the status quo, seeing a state that needed to be assertive in its affairs and shoot straight with its residents.

“There's a lot of collusion, a lot of corruption that takes place in the policymaking of Utah,” he said. “The good news of that is that there is a cure. And the cure is that people have a chance to vote. They have a chance to vote for a governor and a lieutenant governor that will tell them the truth and the harsh reality.”

Incumbent Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during Utah’s gubernatorial GOP primary debate held at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.
Isaac Hale
/
Deseret News, Pool
Incumbent Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during Utah’s gubernatorial GOP primary debate held at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.

Immigration

When it comes to immigration, Lyman has made a point to criticize Cox on social media and the campaign trail, but those sharp comments were largely absent.

He did call out what he characterized as the “detention angle” and advocated for being a strong governor who would “take a more aggressive stance” on immigration.

“We've got to be able to deport those people,” he said.

“And our policy should be able to distinguish between a mother who's a refugee and a person who is here, a predator, with fentanyl dealers. And somehow we seem to lump all of those together when we're talking about policy. And that is not what good policy does.”

Cox largely agreed with the assessment and placed most of the blame on the shoulders of the Biden administration, saying it has “completely failed this country when it comes to the border.

“We cannot long stay a nation if we can't secure our borders,” he said.

Utah Rep. Phil Lyman speaks during Utah’s gubernatorial GOP primary debate held at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.
Isaac Hale
/
Deseret News, Pool
Utah Rep. Phil Lyman speaks during Utah’s gubernatorial GOP primary debate held at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.

Future Olympics

The two did spar on whether or not a future Olympics would be a net positive for the state. Utah is all but guaranteed to be awarded the 2034 Winter Games at an International Olympic Committee meeting in July.

Cox was ecstatic about the possibility and praised the smart management of the state’s 2002 venues as a major factor in that decision.

“Utah's financial responsibility should be zero, and it will be zero,” Cox said while a report out this week claimed a future games would cost $3.99 billion to put on.

“All of this is going to be paid for by sponsorships. It's not going to cost the tax[payers] a single penny, and we should be proud of that.”

Cox also praised a recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll that showed 79% of Utahns in support of a future Olympics. Lyman then pushed back.

“When I talk to people out on the street, even here in Salt Lake, you know, do you want the Olympics? And they said, why? Why would we want the Olympics now?

Lyman said he is a fan of the Olympics, but questioned whether there would truly be no burden placed on Utahns if the games were to return in 10 years.

We all love the Olympics, but to bring it to Utah, again, is a cost to our state and to our counties and to our communities. And to say otherwise is being disingenuous.”

Lyman especially leaned on the other impacts that will mostly be felt in Salt Lake City like the influx of people and secondary effects like traffic.

Incumbent Gov. Spencer Cox, left, shakes hands with Utah Rep. Phil Lyman after Utah’s gubernatorial GOP primary debate held at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.
Isaac Hale
/
Deseret News, Pool
Incumbent Gov. Spencer Cox, left, shakes hands with Utah Rep. Phil Lyman after Utah’s gubernatorial GOP primary debate held at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.

Public money for pro sports

Cox and Lyman also disagreed on the role of state government when it comes to helping fund future pro sports venues.

The Legislature passed two bills this year that provide a framework where $2 billion in public money can be used to fund sports and entertainment districts in Salt Lake City. One centered around the Delta Center and the other was aimed at attracting a future Major League Baseball team.

Lyman, who voted against the baseball bill and did not cast a vote in the bill about the Delta Center and downtown Salt Lake City redevelopment, said public funding for stadiums is “not the same thing as personal money. That creates an ongoing liability for the taxpayers.”

“I'm grateful for the contributions of some of our philanthropists and their investments that they've made into the community,” he said. “But to step into that space as a Legislature has been confusing to me. I don't see it as the proper role of government.”

Cox pointed out the laws do grant final authority over any tax increase to local governments.

“This is a huge opportunity for the state, not just from economic development, but an opportunity for so many people who are excited to have the NHL here, maybe Major League Baseball in the future,” he said. “What we've done is just give authority to Salt Lake City to decide if this is what they want to do in their city.”

Lyman was the overwhelming pick out of the April 27 state GOP nominating convention, where he beat Cox 67.54% to 32.46% among Utah’s nearly 4,000 GOP delegates.

But a recent poll by the Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics showed Cox leading among likely Republican voters 62% to Lyman’s 25%. Of those sampled, 12% said they were unsure who they would vote for.

The winner of the June 25 primary will face Democrat Brian King in the Nov. 5 general election.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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