Mail-in ballots for the June 25 primary election are already in voters’ hands, even while debates and polls are heating up the highly contested races. The latest developments:

By our column deadline, three important primary election debates had occurred, each broadcast on TV and radio and covered extensively by the news media. The largest clashes in each debate erupted between incumbent members of Congress, all mainstream conservatives, and their mostly ultra-MAGA challengers. Were any of the incumbents (Blake Moore in CD1; Celeste Maloy in CD3; or John Curtis, a representative running for the U.S. Senate) seriously damaged in the debates?

Pignanelli: Trump has had a roller-coaster relationship with Utah Republicans dating to his 2016 race. GOP operatives say his standing with primary voters is strong, but not as high as in other ruby-red states.” — Al Weaver, The Hill

The first rule of political debates is to do no harm ... to yourself. The second is that incumbents and/or perceived front-runners must be prepared for the most attacks. Under these traditional guidelines, all the experienced contenders fared well. They successfully navigated the treacherous waters of praising Trump’s policies while avoiding overt support of him. Such delicacy reveals an understanding of Utah’s complicated relationship with the former president. The MAGA challengers were energetic pugilists, but the punches thrown rarely connected.

Webb: Republican primary voters have clear choices in these races. Do they want to elect far-right obstructionists who prefer dysfunction and gridlock over compromise and problem-solving? Or do they want to elect solid, mainstream conservatives who seek conservative solutions that can win approval in a divided government?

In general, the far-right challengers, particularly Trent Staggs in the Senate race and Colby Jenkins in CD1, want to join the small band of congressional saboteurs (like Reps. Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene) who, if they don’t get 100% of what they want, will shut down the government and rebel against their own leadership.

In a divided government, purist, uncompromising, unrealistic demands produce failure. They are the do-nothing caucus.

In the CD1 debate, I was especially disappointed that Jenkins, who is challenging Maloy, appeared willing to make Congress subservient to the executive branch. Jenkins’ response to nearly every question was this: Elect Donald Trump and he will solve all the nation’s problems. His worship of Trump as the country’s savior was almost embarrassing.

In reality, Congress should vigorously defend its own role and push back against the extreme overreach displayed by both Trump and Pres. Biden in issuing dozens of executive orders and agency regulations usurping congressional authority. Unfortunately, the gridlock in Congress preferred by the do-nothing caucus will produce even more executive orders and agency overreach, and further diminish the constitutional role of the legislative branch.

In the Senate race, I believe both Curtis and former Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson would govern conservatively and effectively. Staggs or Jason Walton would ratchet up congressional dysfunction.

A recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics survey reveals the following support levels in the gubernatorial primary among likely Republican voters: Gov. Spencer Cox, 62%; Phil Lyman, 25%; undecided, 12%. In the U.S. Senate race the same poll shows John Curtis at 34% support; Trent Staggs, 16%; Brad Wilson, 12%; Jason Walton, 4%; and undecided, 33%. Any surprises?

Pignanelli: Handcarts in the Pioneer Day Parade would be a bigger surprise than the poll results for the governor’s race. Utahns want governors to be inspirational, not confrontational. The Senate survey confirms prior discussions in this column that Curtis was leading, and Staggs was surging. The polls reaffirm once again that television commercial bombardment or lawn signs do not garner support in 21st-century politics.

Webb: Cox and Curtis were far better known going into the race, so it’s unsurprising they’re ahead. Cox will win handily. Curtis is clearly the frontrunner, but he needs to win a good share of undecided voters.

Last week, the Salt Lake County GOP sent voters a “2024 Primary Ballot Candidate Guide.” The mailer lists only candidates who received at least 40% delegate support at the conventions. Controversy immediately erupted as to whether this was an official endorsement by the party for a few candidates and implied disapproval of otherwise faithful Republican contenders. Could this deliver another blow against the caucus system?

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Pignanelli: Candidates who receive over 60% in their respective convention contests should be highlighted. This is an important achievement in intraparty politics. But long-time activists who supported fellow Republicans with time and resources, and are now on the primary ballot themselves, should not be ignored in an official promotional mailer.

Apparently, county Republican Party leaders need a refresher on their roles. They should not be using taxpayer-funded primary elections to promote an agenda other than a platform or endorse certain Republican candidates over others that are equally qualified. They have abandoned the priorities of convening well-run caucuses, followed by a civil and expeditious convention where neighborhood designees carry out the election preferences of their fellow Republican neighbors.

Webb: To Salt Lake County GOP leaders, you’re a second-class Republican if you didn’t attend your party caucus. They don’t want the vast majority of good, solid Republicans who didn’t become state or county delegates to determine party nominees. They cater to the whims of the tiny number of delegates. They are accelerating the demise of the caucus/convention system.

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.

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