Saying his opponent is “acting as a coward,” a Republican challenger in Utah’s 4th Congressional District blasted incumbent Rep. Burgess Owens for declining to participate in debates before the June 28 GOP primary election.

At a news conference Tuesday outside Owens’ campaign office in Draper, candidate Jake Hunsaker also went after the Utah Republican Party for failing to put on a debate in the race.

“This should be a space dedicated to earning your vote,” he said. “Instead, this is the building where my opponent comes to hide from you.”

It comes as no surprise that Owens would not want to debate because he has been absent from Utah since the day he took office, Hunsaker said. Owens, he said, is “absolutely terrified” of tough questions and nervous he’ll incriminate himself.

“This is just another sign that my opponent views the entire electoral process as a threat to his game of toxic celebrity politics rather than an essential piece of American democracy,” Hunsaker said.

Owens, he said, has rejected four possible debates, including ones sponsored by the bipartisan Utah Debate Commission and the Utah GOP.

Jesse Ranney, Owens campaign spokesman, said the congressman has never said he would not debate and that he is looking at possible dates in June.

“It’s unfortunate that our opponent has chosen to launch his political career by engaging in mudslinging and lies. The people of Utah deserve better,” he said. “These are desperate lies being spread by our political opponent.”

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The Utah Debate Commission scheduled a debate between Owens and Hunsaker for Wednesday afternoon, which Hunsaker said will leave him opposite an empty podium to take tough questions while Owens is protected from that scrutiny.

“He is acting as a coward because he knows there is safe political shelter in standing for nothing,” Hunsaker said.

The Utah Republican Party, which discouraged candidates from participating in the debate commission events, tried unsuccessfully to set up a debate between Owens and Hunsaker.

Hunsaker, who calls himself a “principled, compassionate” conservative, said in not holding a debate in the 4th District, the Utah Republican Party robs voters’ opportunity to vet candidates and shows an “inherent disregard” for the primary election. Canceling the debate, he said, is irresponsible and insulting to GOP voters. He said it keeps voters uninformed and in the dark.

“GOP leaders, don’t be a safe haven for absenteeism and cowardice,” Hunsaker urged.

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Utah Republican Party Chairman Carson Jorgensen said the party tried to organize a debate between Hunsaker and Owens. He said the Owens campaign didn’t give him a reason for the congressman declining to participate.

“Jake can come at the party all he wants but we have gone above and out of our way to make sure that debates happen and it’s probably not a good thing to start attacking the party right now,” he said. “Bold strategy attacking the party.”

Jorgensen said he hasn’t heard about the Owens campaign looking to schedule a debate in June.

“Maybe they’re working with somebody else,” he said.

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The 4th District race is the only one without a scheduled debate ahead of the primary election.

While all but one incumbent will skip the Utah Debate Commission debates, the events will go on even if only one candidate takes the stage.

But 2nd District candidate Erin Rider has decided not participate in the commission debate alone. She and incumbent Rep. Chris Stewart agreed to take part in a Utah GOP-sponsored debate Tuesday night on KRNS radio.

Rider, a Salt Lake lawyer, said she’s disappointed Stewart opted out of the debate commission event, but a debate without an opponent isn’t a debate.

“I refuse to use my opponent’s empty podium in an attempt to score cheap political points,” she said. “Utah voters deserve better.”