Moderation prevailed in Tuesday’s gubernatorial Republican primary debate as Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and state Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, centered their rhetoric around policy — a departure from Cox’s rowdy reception at state convention and Lyman’s aggressive online campaign messaging.

During the hour-long debate, which Cox cheerfully called “boring,” the first-term governor listed what he considers his legislative achievements, identified his biggest regret and noted the absence of fiery rhetoric coming from his challenger.

“Campaigns bring out the worst in people. We’ve certainly seen that with my opponent’s campaign,” Cox said following the debate hosted by the Utah Debate Commission.

The governor, who has championed “Disagree Better” as chairman of the National Governor’s Association, said he has tried to run a positive campaign this year like he did four years ago.

“It’s so much easier to lie and tear your opponent down,” Cox said. “I’m sad that my opponent has done it — he didn’t do it tonight, he didn’t do it to my face, but he apparently is willing to say and do anything to tear down and get elected.”

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Lyman, who has represented southeastern Utah for six years in the state legislature, said the event’s format made the debate more “tame from what would probably be more in my comfort zone.”

Lyman has accused Cox of failing to take a bolder stand on issues like transgenderism, illegal migration and centralizing authority to state government on local issues.

“We see things very differently,” Lyman said following the debate, which was moderated by KUER assistant news director Caroline Ballard. “I’m a bottom-up kind of power dynamic person. Cox is very much a top-down power dynamic person. I think the comparisons is stark.”

Lyman defeated Cox 67.5% to 32.5% in the April GOP convention among 4,000 delegates, many of whom greeted Cox with boos before making him the first signature-gathering incumbent not to meet the party’s 40% threshold at convention since a signature route was established 10 years ago, according to former GOP party chairman Spencer Stokes.

Utah Rep. Phil Lyman speaks during Utah’s gubernatorial GOP primary debate held at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 11, 2024. | Isaac Hale, Deseret News

Cox, who is running for his second term in office, is among the most popular governors in the nation. A recent Deseret News-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found Cox with 62% support among registered Republican voters and Lyman with 25% ahead of the June 25 primary election.

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Where do Cox and Lyman stand on housing and immigration?

The governor, who previously served as lieutenant governor under Gary Herbert for seven years, touted tax cuts, abortion restrictions, and investments in public education and school choice as highlights from his first four years. But it is the issue of housing affordability that Cox said carried both his biggest win and regret.

After three years of passing dozens of bills meant to increase the supply of starter homes in Utah, “none of them really made a dent,” Cox lamented. But he said he hopes recent legislative wins will reverse that pattern.

“This is the single most important issue in our state,” Cox said at the top of the debate. “This past session, we worked tirelessly with legislators to pass the most comprehensive housing reform in the United States.”

This year, Cox’s administration led out on a package of regulatory reforms to make it easier for homebuilders and municipalities to construct smaller, cheaper single-family homes, including a bill that would give discount loans to lending institutions that backed affordable housing projects.

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Lyman said these policy goals were evidence of Cox’s big government tendencies.

“This is the comforting method we like to tell ourselves, that the government is going to fix this problem,” Lyman said.

Lyman said the best thing the state can do is get out of the way. It is regulations coming out of Salt Lake City that have created incentives for developers to stay away from affordable housing projects, Lyman said. “And throwing money at it is not going to fix the problem.”

Lyman levied this same criticism at the current administration’s approach to water management, attracting out-of-state business and subsidizing expensive sports stadiums. The two candidates voiced their agreement on Utah Fits All scholarships, federal overreach on public lands and abortion being a state issue.

But Lyman said he would do more to address illegal immigration in the state then Utah’s current executive.

“Our policies make us a magnet for illegal immigration, you can see by the numbers,” Lyman said. “And not only that, our policies make us a magnet for non-citizens with criminal intent because of the way that we treat the retention of illegals. We’ve got to take more aggressive stance.”

Lyman said he would flout Biden administration rules that make it difficult to detain migrants in local jails and called on Immigration and Customs Enforcement to increase deportations.

Cox placed the blame for increased immigration levels on Biden policies that have made it so that “every state is a border state.”

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Incumbent Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during Utah’s gubernatorial GOP primary debate held at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 11, 2024. | Isaac Hale, Deseret News

What is Utah’s brand?

Despite the “Disagree Better” tone of the debate, the candidates diverged on the need for “aggressive rhetoric” in achieving policy successes.

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“I’m very proud to be a conservative Utahn,” Cox said. “But I also believe the way we do things matter. ... Our state gets judged by the way that I conduct myself.”

A commitment to treating political opponents with “dignity and respect” is key to Utah’s “brand,” which also includes leading the country in the strength of its economy and communities, Cox said.

But elevating civility above all else ignores the threats Utah faces from “external forces who are not using fair tactics to try to take away what belongs to us,” Lyman said.

“They’re trying to lock up our energy. They’re trying to lock up our land. Trying to shut down or industries. They sue our counties. They go after our people. They raid the homes of our people. They have hurt people’s lives,” Lyman said. “I’m not against polite words, but there’s a point where we have to use aggressive rhetoric.”

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