U.S. Senate candidates Ally Isom and Becky Edwards took the opportunity to point out, in incumbent Sen. Mike Lee's absence on the debate stage Thursday, what differentiates them from him.

Edwards and Isom each criticized Lee for a lack of leadership in their opening statements at the Utah Debate Commission's U.S. Senate Republican primary debate, as they did Wednesday when Lee was present at the Utah GOP-controlled debate.

Lee declined to participate Thursday after the Utah Republican Party discouraged candidates from taking part in the independent debate commission's events because it wanted to control the moderators and the questions in GOP primary contests.

U.S. Senate candidates Becky Edwards, left, and Ally Isom participate in a debate hosted by the Utah Debate Commission at KSL-TV in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 2, 2022. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was absent. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Isom and Edwards fielded questions about hot-button topics like the economy and gun control from the moderator, Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks, and other members of the media. The debate was broadcast and livestreamed from KSL-TV's Salt Lake City studio.

"Mike Lee disrespects the people of Utah when he doesn't show up, and it's symbolic that he's not here with us tonight," Edwards said.

Isom recited instances where she said Lee voted against bills that would have helped Utah cities.

"Town and local leaders tell me they don't even bother meeting with him anymore. They don't need a lecture, they need a letter of support. You stayed too long in Washington when you forget the people who sent you there. When people won't work with you. When you can't get bills passed."

Edwards and Isom were also asked about what differentiates them from the other candidates, and both spoke often about things that separated them from the absent incumbent senator.

"Congress is broken. Mike Lee is one of the major contributors to the obstructionism and gridlock that we're facing right now that is leaving the people of Utah and the people of this country behind," Edwards said.

"I think we see evidences of Mike Lee specifically not being able, or willing or having the desire or capacity to sit down and do the hard work," she said. "We're not supposed to be having people there who are looking at this office as an opportunity to write books, see personal gain on the media. ... I don't vote no, on the repeat, on issue after issue, whether it's public lands or immigration, because I don't stop at no, I take my principles forward and continue to work hard on the issues."

Then-U.S. Senate candidate Becky Edwards speaks during a debate in Salt Lake City.
U.S. Senate candidate Becky Edwards speaks during a debate hosted by the Utah Debate Commission at KSL-TV in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 2, 2022. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was absent. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Isom spoke about the importance of getting things done.

"With Lee, there is a lot of rhetoric and not enough action," Isom said. "For me, it will be no longer giving lip service to Utah, but showing up for Utah. We have an empty podium today because (Lee) has utter contempt for the people of Utah. He's not here to be held accountable."

Edwards said her experience being reelected to the Utah House five times and working across the aisle differentiates her from her two competitors in the Republican primary.

"I was able to accomplish things that set the stage for future work because I brought people together. I listened, I learned, I brought people from within the Republican Party and worked across the aisle in a bipartisan way to always find solutions. It's what we need more of in the United States Senate," she said.

Isom said she grew up in difficult circumstances and "no one opened a door for me because of my last name" but she has private-sector business leadership experience as well as working in government and religious roles.

"In this race, I feel a little like Goldilocks," she said. "I'm not the candidate who voted for (President Joe) Biden and I'm not the candidate who compared (former President Donald) Trump to Captain Moroni or Mother Teresa."

U.S. Senate candidate Ally Isom speaks during a debate hosted by the Utah Debate Commission at KSL-TV in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 2, 2022. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was absent. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Isom contrasted several areas that she would have voted for and Lee didn't, but said even when she has agreed with him on issues like the budget and public lands, the message and timing of some of his "no" votes were wrong. For example, "I would have supported the Japanese internment memorial (in Colorado)," she said. "I agree with Mike Lee 1,000% on public lands, but it's the wrong message at the wrong time — to send the message that we don't care about those who have paid a price in our nation for our freedoms."

Isom and Edwards had similar stances on Second Amendment rights with both supporting stricter gun laws while maintaining rights. Both candidates expressed support for reopening the Keystone Pipeline and energy independence. Edwards spoke about opening the conversation about climate change on the Republican side, and called for more bipartisanship.

"It's not OK to continue to have one party with extremist views controlling the agenda and the other party with extremist views not even coming to the table," Edwards said. "This election is not about me, Ally or even Mike Lee; it's about you, the voters and the people of this great state."

Utah primaries will be held June 28.

Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks moderates the U.S. Senate debate hosted by the Utah Debate Commission with candidates Becky Edwards and Ally Isom at KSL-TV in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 2, 2022. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was absent. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News