Facebook Twitter

Opinion: Will we see any October surprises before Utah’s election day?

After the Lee-McMullin debate, what will influence voters going forward?

SHARE Opinion: Will we see any October surprises before Utah’s election day?

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Evan McMullin get heated during their debate at Utah Valley University in Orem on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the final stretch of the 2022 election season without going nuts. Most debates have concluded, ballots are in the mail and candidates are wary of any “October surprise.“

Of course, we have opinions on the latest developments.

The most anticipated televised debate hosted by the Utah Debate Commission was between incumbent Sen. Mike Lee and independent challenger Evan McMullin. This event followed the matchups in the four congressional districts. Did anything happen in those verbal exchanges, or the media coverage, that will change the trajectory of the elections? Are the debates even worthwhile?

Pignanelli: “If it’s necessary to join a caucus and get a committee assignment, I’ll do it.” — U.S. Sen. Angus King (Maine, independent)  

The much-hyped debate did not disappoint in substance and entertainment because no punches were pulled. The questions were structured such that Lee was forced to defend his record on many policy issues — which is appropriate. But the Utah Debate Commission committed an inexcusable error of ignoring the issue that captured national media attention — can McMullin adequately represent Utah when not caucusing with a major national party? History documents the difficulty.

In 1953 Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon left his Republican caucus to become an independent, leaving a 48-47-1 split in the body. He was stripped of important committee assignments and abandoned to the political wilderness. Two years later he joined the Democratic caucus.

McMullin claims his independent status will make Utah the most powerful state in the union. But when a Utah family or business needs help on immigration, regulatory or other federal matters, lofty speeches will be of no assist. Interaction with the mammoth federal government requires officials plugged into the system. Utah voters deserved a deep analysis from both candidates on this critical item and were deprived.

Overall, the federal office debates did not move the needle in the races. But these events remain important functions in the electoral process.

Webb: The debates were worthwhile and engaging. They didn’t make or break any campaign, but it is helpful to see the candidates side-by-side answering tough questions. To have a chance at winning, each challenger to the incumbent Republicans needed to vastly exceed expectations with a clear victory. They obviously didn’t come close. 

The Lee-McMullin debate was entertaining, and both candidates were articulate. But Lee was the better debater, as he should be after his years in politics. McMullin’s harsh attacks didn’t rattle Lee, who presented himself as what he is — a staunch conservative who fights for conservative causes and for the Constitution as he interprets it.

McMullin hammered on Lee’s activities surrounding the Jan. 6 protest and election outcome, but didn’t land any telling blows or change many minds. His performance wasn’t good enough to beat Lee, who will benefit from the national Republican surge in the last few weeks of the election. The McMullin path to victory — a coalition of nearly all Democrats, plus some moderate Republicans and independents — looked good on paper, but it’s not working out. Perhaps Mitt Romney could do it — and he might need to if he can’t get the GOP nomination in two years.

What is the impact of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump on the midterm races nationally and locally?

Pignanelli: Other than McMullin’s jabs at Lee for text messages with White House staff after the election, Trump is a nonentity in the Utah campaign season. Further, Utahns are not buying fraudulent election conspiracies, at least in our state. But, throughout the country, Trump still has a stronghold in certain pockets. Trump benefits from a red wave because many of his endorsements will be elected.

What is surprising is how few local candidates have taken advantage of Biden’s unpopularity in Utah. Also, there are almost no areas in the nation where Biden is helpful to candidates — which creates a problem for him in any reelection effort.

Webb: It is rather telling that the two most likely presidential nominees in 2024 are not very popular with a majority of voters in this country. Democrats in close races don’t want Biden anywhere near. It’s more complicated with Trump because Republican candidates badly need his base. But he carries several tons of baggage and hurts with moderate and independent voters. It’s definitely time for Biden and Trump to fade into the sunset and let the next generation take over.

What other external factors will influence the Utah races?

Pignanelli: Economic issues are unlikely to change before mid-November. Early voting dampens the effect of October surprises. However, an international incident or massive act of violence could change the trajectory of late voters leading to election day, affecting outcomes.

Webb: We’re seeing in the last weeks of the election that Republican issues — inflation, especially gas prices, high interest rates, crime and border chaos are more important to voters than Democratic issues like Trump, Jan. 6 and abortion. Voter sentiment is breaking for Republicans just at the right time.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semi-retired small farmer and political consultant. Email:lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.