Utah’s Republican incumbent Sen. Mike Lee faced no shortage of attacks Wednesday from his GOP opponents in what was the first — and likely the only — public face-off between the trio before the Utah GOP primary June 28.
Lee and his challengers, Ally Isom and Becky Edwards, sparred over who should represent Utah in the U.S. Senate over the next six years while fielding questions curated by the Utah Republican Party over abortion access, election security, school shootings, immigration and more during the debate held at Draper Park Middle School.
The Utah Republican Party sponsored Wednesday’s debate after discouraging candidates from participating in debates hosted by the Utah Debate Commission. The party and the bipartisan commission were unable to reach an agreement to co-host the debates, and the Utah GOP planned to sponsor its own debates that it said would better serve the candidates.
Isom and Edwards are slated to join the Utah Debate Commission’s U.S. Senate debate scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m., but Lee won’t be participating.
Attacks on Lee
Edwards and Isom pulled no punches, both taking every chance to accuse Lee of “ineffective leadership” in his 12 years at the Senate while calling Congress more “broken” than ever and in desperate need of new blood to break free from gridlock.
On issues related to public lands, water infrastructure, energy independence, immigration and more, the trio’s policy stances didn’t vary widely — but Isom and Edwards repeatedly attacked Lee for focusing too much on partisanship and not enough on solutions for Utahns.
“I’m tired of career politicians who will say anything to get reelected. I am sick and tired of career politicians who sponsor bills with catchy titles that make for great cable TV, but never get them across the finish line,” Isom said. “What I want to see here is action.”
“People are tired,” Edwards said. “They’re tired of elected officials who do not represent them, do not get things done. ... Can you bring people together for solutions? Can you align people with your vision and over and over, with all due respect, with our good Sen. Lee I am seeing a lack on that front, and that is not OK.”
Lee sought to ward off the attacks by pointing to his years of experience in the Senate while also taking plenty of shots at President Joe Biden, blaming him and “radical, leftist policies” for inflation, high gas prices, federal debt and other big issues currently facing the nation. To fix those problems, Lee said Republicans need to again gain full control of Congress.
“When you go to the pump and you’re seeing that you’re paying almost $5 a gallon, think about the fact that, you know, Joe Biden did that to us. He did that through bad energy policy,” Lee said.
In response to a question about inflation and national debt, Lee said, “We live in an era in which Congress doesn’t operate under a balanced budget” and hasn’t thus far passed his proposed balanced budget amendment to fix the issue. “Congress just spends as if it were free. ... So how do we stop it? We need more people willing to boldly, courageously, to get elected and just say no.”
Edwards pushed back on Lee, saying balancing the budget has been a focus of his for “let’s say 12 years, for example, and yet we sit here still with ineffective leadership on that issue. That puts us in a place right now where we are no better off than we were 12 years ago.”
Isom said the “bottom line” is balancing the budget is “Congress’ job, and they should not get one more paycheck until they get the job done. ... It’s one thing to talk about a balanced budget amendment, (but) it’s a whole other thing to get it passed.”
Policywise, the differences between the three Republicans came into the sharpest view when asked about their stance on abortion. The debate’s moderator, Utah GOP Chairman Carson Jorgensen, asked if they would support legislation “creating the same right to an abortion as Roe v. Wade,” as the landmark abortion case appears poised to be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court if the leaked draft decision holds true.
Lee said he’s “unapologetically pro-life” and would “never, ever support legislation extending false claims of Roe v. Wade.”
Isom said she’s against abortion and hopes to see Roe v. Wade overturned, but it’s a very “complex subject” for her, and that’s “exactly why we need women in the U.S. Senate” to also focus on issues around consent, family planning and sexual education.
Edwards said she “believes in the sanctity of life” — but she’s not in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade. She said she’s sat in rooms with “women having those heartbreaking, heart-wrenching conversations,” women who have experienced rape and abuse, and “I’ve long felt that because of those women ... at this time I have not seen a need to revisit Roe v. Wade.”
If it is overturned, Edwards said she supports states in efforts to support women, children and family planning. “We have to be thoughtful. We have to be nuanced.”
School shootings, gun rights
Asked about school shootings and how to “protect children in schools while maintaining the right to bear arms,” Lee, Isom and Edwards all expressed sympathy for families in Uvalde, Texas, whose children were killed, but also voiced support for the Second Amendment.
Lee said his heart “truly breaks” for the “unspeakable horrors” those families have endured. He said if there are “gaps” in the law, “I’m open to considering fixing those gaps,” but he also added the shootings say “a whole lot more about our social fabric.” He questioned whether social media could do more to help warn law enforcement of these threats and if the platforms should be compelled to do more.
Isom said “much more needs to be done” to combat school shootings, and solutions are possible. “Responsible gun owners want to keep guns out of the wrong hands” and support exploring expanded background checks or red flag laws.
“But show me one that works,” Isom said.
Edwards said she’s an ardent gun rights supporter, but she said there’s also room for common sense and nuance in the debate. Support for the Second Amendment and conversations around increased firearm safety are “not mutually exclusive,” and she’s “encouraged” by conversations around expanding background checks and mental health efforts.
Election security, Lee’s text messages
The GOP-curated debate did include one question about “if there is a question about election integrity, what is the proper way to challenge electoral results and how can we restore confidence in our elections?”
Isom said “everyone wants a secure, free and fair election.” She said the states should continue overseeing elections, “but we have to make sure it’s secure ... especially from cyber hacking.”
“How do we make sure, from a federal level? We ask for evidence, we ask for data,” she said. “I want hard data. And it’s not inappropriate for the federal government to ask for an audit every single election.”
Lee said he agrees that elections should be handled on the state level, but “we have to assume there is some potential” for fraud and stay ahead of it through legislation. He said he would “love” to see more states require voter IDs before voting and “we also very much need to come to terms with how we handle mail-in balloting.”
Unlike Utah, Lee said, other states haven’t had as much experience with mail-in balloting, “and that’s why there was real concerns about this.”
As for Lee’s text messages that revealed his efforts to help the Trump administration explore ways to overturn the 2020 presidential election, Lee again explained he was digging into “rumors” that some states were “thinking about correcting election errors” and possibly withdrawing their electoral votes, but after determining those rumors to be false, Lee said he ultimately voted to certify the election.
Edwards, however, took a stronger stance. She said she was “deeply concerned” when then-President Donald Trump “cast doubt on a system that is so foundational for our country a full 18 months before the election even began.”
“In addition, I was very, very concerned when I saw the hyperpartisanship that was perpetrated for personal gain,” she said. “We still have questions about (that) today, about timeline and activities and intent. This should not have been answered two solid years later.”