Citing concerns with the bipartisan Utah Debate Commission, the Utah Republican Party is moving ahead with plans to sponsor its own debates between primary contenders for Senate and Congress.

Utah GOP Chairman Carson Jorgensen said the party was unable to come to an agreement with the commission to co-host the debates and thinks a party-sponsored debate would better serve the candidates.

“We’ve tried to come to a consensus on some kind of agreement that we can work out to give all of our candidates a fair shake and make sure that it’s fair for us Republicans. We haven’t been able to come to an agreement,” Jorgensen said.

Jorgensen views a party-sponsored debate as being “in lieu of” the commission’s debate, but said the party will leave it up to the candidates to decide whether or not to participate in the latter.

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Last week, one of Sen. Mike Lee’s Republican challengers said the party might be trying to shield the incumbent senator from facing opponents on the debate stage. After Jorgensen encouraged candidates to withhold confirming participation until the party resolved its concerns with the debate commission, Ally Isom said the party might be providing “air cover for (Lee’s) sudden unavailability,” which she learned of last week.

“I’ve been in politics long enough to know a scheme when I smell one. Some speculate Lee’s the one pulling the strings of our state GOP. Maybe it’s only a coincidence. Some speculate Lee’s unsure how to navigate a stage with two female challengers. Well, in 2022, I certainly hope that’s not the case,” Isom said in a statement.

Jorgensen denied any bias toward incumbents, saying he hopes to see Lee, Isom and Becky Edwards on the debate stage together. Lee’s campaign — and others — were uncomfortable with the debate commission’s format, according to Jorgensen.

“To those who are accusing us of trying to hide the ball and trying to make it easy for the incumbents ... it’s actually the opposite of that. We’re actually trying to make it so that everybody shows up,” he said.

Most of the attention is focused on the high-profile Senate race between Lee, Isom and Edwards, but the GOP plans to host debates for all congressional races. Jorgensen said a date hasn’t been picked for the Senate debate, but said all candidates had agreed to participate.

It’s not clear if any incumbents will still participate in the debate commission’s events, although Reps. John Curtis and Burgess Owens will both be out of town on the scheduled dates, with commitments made before the events were scheduled.

“The debate commission did not discuss, coordinate or receive input from the candidates regarding date selection prior to their press release announcing the debates,” said a statement from Rep. Chris Stewart’s campaign director, Rhonda Perkes. “However, Congressman Stewart is committed to debating his primary opponent. We look forward to coordinating with the Utah Republican Party and our opponent to find an agreed upon date, host and venue.”

Rep. Blake Moore’s campaign said the congressman was planning to debate his two primary opponents but did not specify the venue.

“Congressman Moore has a clear vision for America and is happy to debate his challengers on the issues,” campaign strategist Peter Watkins said in a statement.

“Sen. Lee is going to participate in the GOP primary-sanctioned debate,” said campaign spokesman Matt Lusty in a text, but it’s unclear if he will participate in the debate sponsored by the commission.

Why can’t the GOP and debate commission agree?

Jorgensen said the party is at odds with the commission in part because the commission wouldn’t announce debate moderators until after all the candidates agreed to participate. He said he proposed having the commission propose a list of five potential moderators and 30 potential questions, after which the GOP would get final say over the moderator and 10 questions to make up the debate.

“We felt that was pretty good terms for everybody,” Jorgensen said. “But they want to remain completely independent, which is great, and that’s their prerogative. For us, we just decided that wasn’t what we wanted to do.”

“People are mad, and they’re saying, ‘Oh, you’re discouraging anybody from participating in debate,’” he continued. “That’s not true. This is a primary election, it’s completely different. You’ve got a bipartisan commission putting these debates together. That’s what needs to happen for a general election, but for a Republican primary, I don’t see any need for the Democrats to weigh in on how we run our elections.”

A spokesman for the debate commission said it never received a formal proposal from the party and said it plans to continue with its debates as planned — with or without certain candidates if they choose not to participate.

Wayne Niederhauser, debate commission co-chairman and former Republican Utah Senate president, said this year’s pushback against the commission is new, and the debates have been well-regarded by the parties and the public in years past. He said he hopes the GOP will fully participate in the general election debates in October, saying it would be “concerning” if the party opted out.

“What we’re trying to do is provide a service to the public, to the voters, to inform them through robust debates, addressing the issues in an independent and transparent way,” Niederhauser said.

The commission is committed to retaining its independence, said Candidate Relations Committee Chairman Richard Davis, as its debates provide a unique opportunity for voters to submit questions to candidates about issues that are important to them.

“That’s the kind of interaction that doesn’t happen very often, so this is a big deal,” he said. “We know in the past candidates have understood that, and despite some reticence on their part, they have ultimately participated.”

Davis said the commission will announce the dates earlier in the future to avoid conflicts with candidates. Generally, the commission announces the dates following the state convention in April — giving candidates six weeks of notice — but will announce plans in January going forward.

When asked about scheduling conflicts with candidates, Niederhauser told the Deseret News the commission wouldn’t reschedule any previously scheduled events to avoid showing bias toward one candidate or another.

“We have to be very careful when moving things around. ... It’s hard for us to change things without showing favoritism to one candidate over another,” he said.

Republicans are still finalizing the dates for their debates. Jorgensen said the party is looking at options to televise or livestream the events.

The Utah Debate Commission will hold debates for congressional districts 2, 3 and 4 on June 1 in Salt Lake City, with the 1st District and the Senate debate the following day.