For debates in Utah’s 3rd and 4th congressional district races, the question Wednesday became about “the elephant that’s not in the room.”

The single-candidate debates came after the state Republican party and the independent Utah Debate Commission were unable to reach an agreement to co-host the debates, saying party-sponsored debates would better represent their candidates in a primary election.

Congressional candidate Jake Hunsaker took the debate stage alone Wednesday afternoon, after incumbent Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, declined to participate in the debate sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission.

Hunsaker, a fellow Republican, called the current state of politics a “toxic celebrity game that is less and less productive and more and more divisive.”

“Briefly, I’ll call attention to the elephant that’s not in the room right now,” Hunsaker said, when asked by debate moderator and director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, Jason Perry, about how he would represent the 4th Congressional District. “My opponent, Burgess Owens, is not here. He’s not present. And he has a record of absenteeism in our district and in engagement with voters about a cohesive and proactive conservative vision.”

The toxic nature of our politics, Hunsaker said, is “no more apparent than it is today with an empty podium right next to me where your representative feels it is beneath him to appear to debate actual ideas and solutions for the pressing problems of our community.”

“More than anything,” he continued, “this country was based on the idea that when people show up, good things happen. You deserve a representative who shows up to answer your questions, shows up to earn your vote ... instead of outsourcing all of their funding and their time to the primetime, late night, toxic celebrity show that has become Washington politics.”

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Fourth District congressional candidate Jake Hunsaker answers questions during a GOP primary debate in a KSL studio in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 1, 2022. Hunsaker’s opponent, Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, declined to participate in the debate sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission. | Rick Egan

Hunsaker on the issues

Although he went out of his way to differentiate himself from Owens in terms of style, Hunsaker was substantively conservative, staunchly supporting the Second Amendment and affirming his pro-life bona fides.

He said inflation is at the top of his priority list and criticized the Biden administration for reportedly planning to cancel as much as $10,000 in student debt per borrower, a proposal he called “ludicrous.” Rather than simply oppose the Democrats, though, he said he plans to do more to offer conservative solutions.

“That means I don’t just get to walk away and feel good once I vote against the government subsidizing all of the student debt and call it a day,” Hunsaker said. “I also have to come to the table with actual solutions about how we make college more affordable — about how we give students more information when they take these loans out and how we make sure schools are held accountable ... for the ability of the students to repay the debts that they incur.”

Hunsaker didn’t offer many specifics on the types of legislation he might support when it comes to guns, abortion or the economy.

“I want the American people to know and I want my voters in District 4 to know that I’m committed to making sure that I’m part of a conversation that allows families to send their children to school with some reassurance that they will come home at the end of the day,” he said, adding that legislation should “help school children relax enough to do what they go to school to do.”

He wouldn’t confirm whether he has sought or would accept an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, saying he wants a Republican Party that “shuns the toxicity” and “sensationalism.”

“If Mar-a-Lago calls tomorrow, I will let you know. I don’t hold out hope that that happens,” he said.

Third Congressional District race features another solo debate

Congressional candidate Chris Herrod also took the debate stage alone on Wednesday afternoon, missing incumbent Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah. Curtis’ campaign said he is out of the country “helping fulfill Congress’s constitutional role in foreign affairs.”

Herrod and Curtis previously met for a debate on May 27 sponsored in part by the College Republicans and the Young Republicans. Wednesday’s debate for the 3rd Congressional District was sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission.

During Wednesday’s debate, Herrod said that while he agreed with Curtis on issues like abortion and Second Amendment rights, that he is much more vocal than the incumbent on his stance against critical race theory, and what he calls the “Marxist beginnings” of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Herrod also spoke about being energy independent and accused Curtis of taking taxpayer money to “travel to Scotland or Glasgow,” which he said is “giving credibility” to organizations that “want to weaken the United States.”

Herrod spoke about gun control in light of the Texas shootings, saying that when he was in high school that it was a normal thing for students to drive to school with guns in their cars.

“Guns are less available than when I was growing up,” he said. “Kids used to go to school with a gun in their car hung up.”

When asked about an 18-year-old being able to legally buy an AR-15 and 1,600 rounds of ammunition, Herrod responded by saying that it’s “one of those things in a free society.”

“The fact of the matter is we live in a society that values freedom,” he said. “We’re going to lose 100,000 people in this country this year because of drug overdoses, and many people are not willing to secure our borders. In a free society I respect other people’s rights and they respect ours.”

He said that it is important to take time to make decisions, and that “decisions made in crisis mode are usually not good.”

Herrod reiterated that unlike Curtis, that he was not in line with fellow Utah Republicans  Sen. Mitt Romney or Gov. Spencer Cox.

“If you think that Mitt Romney has done a good job for the state of Utah I’m probably not your guy; if you’re supportive of Gov. Cox then I’m probably not your person, and John Curtis has endorsed all those who have endorsed each other.”

Utah primaries will be held June 28.