LEHI — Eight Republican congressional hopefuls largely toed the party line on policy but tried to differentiate themselves from their opponents based on corporate or government experience, age and even loyalty to the caucus convention system during a debate in front of several dozen delegates Wednesday afternoon.

Several painted a grim picture of modern America but were optimistic about the GOP taking both Congress and the White House in the 2024 elections.

The debate, which was held at the Utah Valley University campus at Thanksgiving Point and hosted by the Utah Elephant Club and the Gary R. Herbert Institute for Public Policy, comes with just a few weeks left before the state nominating convention, when the field of candidates for the 3rd Congressional District will likely be narrowed.

Three candidates — physician and state Sen. Mike Kennedy, former state lawmaker Chris Herrod, and Salt Lake County chairman of the Utah Young Republicans Zac Wilson — have all staked their candidacies on the delegates and must secure at least 40% of the delegate vote on April 27 to advance.

Other candidates have stated their intentions to collect signatures to qualify for the GOP primary. Two have already qualified — state auditor John Dougall and entrepreneur Case Lawrence — and a couple of others have signaled they will soon meet the requirement.

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, currently occupies the 3rd District seat, but announced in January he would run for Sen. Mitt Romney's seat rather than try for another term in the House of Representatives.

What is compromise?

Rob Axson, chairman of the Utah Republican Party and moderator of the friendly debate, dove into the question of compromise early on, asking the candidates how they would approach compromise if elected.

The candidates generally said they would be willing to compromise with members of opposing parties if they were working toward a common goal, but many said they would not compromise on key principles and values.

  • Wilson said he's often asked on the campaign trail if he is willing to work across the aisle, to which his answer is "resoundingly yes." He noted that House Republicans hold only a one-seat majority and said he would have to compromise in order to address his policy priorities.
  • Dougall drew a distinction between good compromise — where you get a bit of what you want and keep moving in the right direction — and bad compromise, or a "sell-out" of principles. "You need to work with folks; you need to understand where they're at, what motivates them, what their priorities are," he said.
  • Herrod said he has "no problem" working with moderate or "Reagan Democrats," but said the problem is "now we have people in Congress that do not love America." He called climate change a "hysteria," and said "the climate change agenda is more about communism than it is about science."
  • An attorney, Stewart Peay touted his record of settling contentious corporate cases. "Compromise is about understanding your principles, understanding what you won't give up, then figuring out how to get what you want from the other side," he said. "And you do that by building relationships and making sure everyone trusts you."
  • Roosevelt Mayor JR Bird said he has a history of appointing people to city positions from different perspectives, and also spoke of developing trust and relationships. "Americans as a whole, we really do agree on more than we disagree on, so why in the world are we letting some of these fringe political issues ... divide our country?" he asked. Bird previously campaigned for a U.S. Senate seat and went by the name Rod Bird Jr.
  • Throughout his time in the Utah Legislature, Kennedy said it's not uncommon for bills he proposes to be whittled down from a "willow tree" of an idea to a "toothpick" of policy. The senator sponsored a high-profile ban on gender-related surgeries for minors last year, and said, "When it comes to protecting the children in this state, I am not compromising my principles."
  • "We can work together, that's what happens when you have an almost evenly divided House," said Kathryn Dahlin, a former U.S. Senate aide and GOP delegate. She was realistic with delegates, saying, "You're not going to get everything you want," and pitched herself as someone who would "look for those with whom they can create relationships" rather than "political posturing."
  • Lawrence said the current GOP House caucus has "squandered" and "wasted" their time in the majority since the beginning of this Congress because the caucus itself can't agree. "We as Republicans need to be better team players, smarter team players back in Washington," he said.

Term limits

Candidates were also asked if they support term limits for members of Congress and if they would self-impose any limits on themselves if elected. All expressed support for legislation to impose such term limits, although some said they would prefer bureaucrats in Washington also be limited in how long they can work for the federal government, and not everyone promised to serve for a set period of time if elected.

  • Dahlin called term limits a "wonderful idea," but declined to term limit herself, saying she believes that "would put the district at a disadvantage."
  • "I would support them if there's traction for legislation," said Lawrence, who self-imposed a term limit of eight years.
  • "I'm not going to serve more than 10 years," Wilson said. "If I can't do something meaningful before that, you should fire me long before that."
  • Dougall pledged not to serve for more than "10 to 12 years" in Congress.
  • Herrod wants to "balance term limits with bureaucrats" but said representatives "shouldn't (serve) more than 12 years."
  • Twelve years is long enough to balance the budget, according to Peay, after which he plans to return to the Hobble Creek Golf Course.
  • Bird also declined to limit the length of his possible tenure, but said he helped establish term limits in Roosevelt and would be supportive of the idea along with other electoral reforms to cap election spending.
  • Utah’s part-time Legislature has it figured out when it comes to term limits, Kennedy said, because it is “so uncomfortable, and the pay is so small.” He said he would sponsor a bill to limit House terms to between eight and 12 years.