Utah’s political parties must work during the quiet of a nonelection season to schedule primary debates and determine guidelines well in advance. If the parties put in place fixed procedures far ahead of time, both incumbents and challengers will know upfront that debates are taking place and can plan accordingly.
Both parties undoubtedly understand why rigorous and unflinching primary debate is a vital part of a healthy political process, yet during each primary season there tends to be a disconcerting dearth of it in Utah. Incumbents calculate that there is too little to gain, or, depending on whom you ask, too much to lose, by regularly debating their challengers. Hence, scheduling a primary debate often devolves into a game of cajoling, bargaining with and even begging incumbents to participate.
During this primary season Gov. Gary Herbert and his challenger Jonathan Johnson held only one debate back in April before the party convention. Rep. Jason Chaffetz and his challenger Chia-Chi Teng plan on holding a single candidate conversation only days before voting closes. Primary candidates Jonathan Swinton and Misty Snow, both vying to replace Sen. Mike Lee, have set the example in recent weeks by holding two traditional debates; of course, neither candidate is an incumbent.
Early party planning, including fixed rules and venues, would help avoid the perennial debate about debates. Solving this issue is especially important for Utah’s Republican Party since, in a perennially red state, the GOP primary often decides the general election. If the parties prove to be squeamish about sullying their candidates in debates before the general election, perhaps there is a role for the newly formed Utah Debate Commission.
Earlier this year when Donald Trump decided to skip a presidential primary debate in Utah, Chaffetz remarked, “It feels like Donald Trump is snubbing Utah.” Even earlier, when Trump skipped a different debate, Chaffetz asked incredulously, “My goodness, come on, you can’t sit there and answer the hard questions?”
Ultimately, primary voters should be permitted the opportunity to compare and contrast candidates in real time, sans media filters or campaign spin. Having candidates stand side by side and answer, as Chaffetz put it, “the hard questions” is not simply a nice political tradition; it can be an essential tool in improving governance in Utah and fostering an informed and engaged electorate.
As James Madison wrote: “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.” We hope the parties will step in to ensure that primary debates are planned well in advance and become a mainstay in Utah’s candidate selection process.