SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert won't participate in a televised debate with his Republican primary challenger, Jonathan Johnson, citing a busy campaign schedule between now and the June 28 election.
The KSL and Deseret News Editorial Board extended the offer to host and televise a debate during a May 23 meeting with the governor and has repeatedly sought to schedule a debate in the weeks since the request. His campaign manager, Marty Carpenter, turned it down in an email sent late Thursday afternoon.
"At this late stage in the calendar the governor simply cannot cancel previously scheduled campaign events across the state in order to accommodate yet another debate," Carpenter said in the email.
He said Herbert has already participated in three debates, including one hosted by the Utah Federation of Republican Women on April 11 that was broadcast live on KSL Newsradio and co-moderated by station talk show host Doug Wright.
The other two events Carpenter referred to were not debates. They featured gubernatorial candidates answering questions about issues but not debating one another's positions. The Utah Foundation brought them together on March 24; and the Utah Taxpayers Association on May 16.
Johnson said he was "disappointed for the people of Utah" that Herbert declined the debate.
"I'm a big believer in the free market. That includes the free market of ideas," the Overstock.com chairman said. "I think it's cowardly for Gov. Herbert not to stand sie by side and debate the issues in a way that Utahns can all listen and participate."
He has pressed for debates throughout the campaign and said Herbert has refused a long list of groups, including rural GOP leaders, Catholic schools and universities around the state.
Carpenter said with early voting underway and 20 of the state's 29 counties already casting ballots by mail, the governor is campaigning throughout the state to take his message personally to voters.
"The governor has worked extremely hard to fulfill his commitment to help voters understand his public record and to give them opportunities to contrast his opponent's positions with his own," Carpenter said.
Herbert had told the editorial board that the request for a debate would be discussed by the campaign.
"You all know that if you're behind, you want to have as many debates as you can. If you're ahead, you want to have as few debates as you can. That's just political strategy," the governor said then.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Brigham Young University Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said that may be true, but debates are helpful to voters.
"They may be especially helpful in a primary setting, where voters don't have the benefit of party labels to try to differentiate between the candidates," Karpowitz said. "Anything that allows voters to have additional information is helpful."
Contributing: Brianna Bodily