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The story behind Utah’s selection to host the 2020 vice presidential debate

And a look at why the Utah Debate Commission scrapped its first choice — BYU — to hold the national event

Vice President Mike Pence holds a rally at the Infinity Event Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the Utah Debate Commission dreamed about holding a presidential debate in the state not long after it formed six years ago to sponsor statewide general election debates.

After successfully putting on a series of congressional and attorney general debates in 2014, the commission’s board — a consortium of media outlets and universities — started thinking bigger. It occurred to them that though neighboring Arizona and Colorado had played host to presidential debate, Utah never had.

“It morphed from this little thing,” said Scott Howell, an original Utah Debate Commission co-chairman who now serves as a board member.

The commission began talking to the Commission on Presidential Debates and found a partner in the University of Utah willing to provide resources to host the event. The nonprofit, nonpartisan commission and the university put together a bid for one of three 2020 presidential debates and one vice presidential debate.

Speakers walk down the stairs of the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, to announce the U. has been selected to host the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7, 2020.
Speakers walk down the stairs of the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, to announce the U. has been selected to host the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

On Friday, the presidential debate commission announced that the University of Utah has been chosen to hold the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7, 2020, in Kingsbury Hall.

Utah is the only Western state selected for one of three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. The 2020 presidential debates will be held at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.

“We were thrilled to just be in the mix of any one of those four,” said Utah Debate Commission Co-chairman Thomas Wright.

He doesn’t consider the vice presidential debate a consolation prize.

Nena Slighting, executive director of the Utah Debate Commission, Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, Gov. Gary Herbert, Thomas Wright, co-chairman of the Utah Debate Commission, and Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert converse outside Kingsbury Hall on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, after announcing the U. has been selected to host the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7, 2020.
Nena Slighting, executive director of the Utah Debate Commission, Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, Gov. Gary Herbert, Thomas Wright, co-chairman of the Utah Debate Commission, and Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert converse outside Kingsbury Hall on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, after announcing the U. has been selected to host the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“Not at all. We’re so excited about it. How could it be? It so exciting to welcome the world to Utah, showcase our lifestyle and this amazing place,” said Wright, a former Utah Republican Party chairman.

It will be the first national debate in Utah.

“Kind of a big deal,” University of Utah President Ruth Watkins said.

A decidedly red state, Utah isn’t a place that typically attracts much attention in a presidential race. But Gov. Gary Herbert said the debate could change that.

“This is a step in the right direction. Vice presidential debate now, presidential debate tomorrow,” he said after a news conference on the steps outside Kingsbury Hall. “I think we shouldn’t be ignored and now we’re not going to be ignored.”

The presidential debate commission has sponsored all general election presidential and vice presidential debates since 1988. The commission will announce details about the 2020 debates, including the format and moderators, next year. All four debates will start at 9 p.m. Eastern Time and run for 90 minutes without commercials.

Presidential debates don’t come cheap.

The Utah event is estimated to cost $5 million to $6 million to put on, said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. The Utah Legislature has already put up $2.5 million and officials will also launch a fundraising campaign, he said.

Vice President Mike Pence could be one of the participants should President Donald Trump win the Republican nomination and retain Pence as his running mate. The Democratic challenger will emerge later in the campaign.

In 2016, Pence debated Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential choice, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., at Longwood University in Virginia before a TV audience of 37 million views, about half of what the presidential debates between Clinton and Trump drew that year.

Still, the national political spotlight will be on Salt Lake City for one night during the heat of the battle for the White House.

“Utah is officially with this no longer a flyover state,” Utah Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, said. “It’s kind of like we got the Super Bowl of politics.”

University of Utah President Ruth Watkins announces the U. has been selected to host the vice presidential debate during a press conference at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. The debate will be held at the hall on Oct. 7, 2020.
University of Utah President Ruth Watkins announces the U. has been selected to host the vice presidential debate during a press conference at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. The debate will be held at the hall on Oct. 7, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Watkins called it a “tremendous honor” for the university to host the debate.

“I am excited for our students to be able to participate in this important component of their political process,” she said. “It will be an incredible experience for them.”

Kingsbury Hall has hosted political events in the past, including Mitt Romney’s scathing rebuke of then Republican presidential candidate Trump in 2016.

The University of Utah wasn’t the Utah Debate Commission’s first choice.

Things were moving along well with Brigham Young University in Provo until commission members learned that Anheuser-Busch is a presidential debate sponsor and would have a presence on campus, Howell said. BYU is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has a strict policy against alcohol consumption.

“That didn’t work,” said Howell, a former Democratic state senator.

Howell said the University of Utah has been a great partner. The presidential debate commission really liked the campus and the facilities after a site visit, he said. “We passed the test.”

In addition to having a venue to hold the debate, the host community needs to be able to provide 13,000 to 15,000 hotel rooms. Reporters from every country in the world are invited to attend, Howell said. Some 3,000 to 5,000 media members are expected for the event.

“It will do for Utah what the Olympics did,” he said, though he added the state would be viewed through a political lens rather than a sports lens.

Utah has a proven track record for hosting large-scale events, such as the 2002 Winter Olympics, Herbert said, adding that the debate will give the state an opportunity to highlight its strong economy, increasing middle class population and upward mobility.

“We are a good example. There’s an opportunity for us, in fact, to elevate the conversation in showing about the successes of Utah which can be, we would hope, replicated around the country and in other states,” Herbert said.

Utah was in line to host a GOP presidential primary debate in March 2016. But after Trump said he wasn’t interested in participating, the Republican National Committee scrapped the event.