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debate2The Utah Foundation’s gubernatorial quasi-debate on Thursday didn’t spark any major fireworks, but it did provide a good first glimpse of the four primary candidates for governor, their debate styles, and what we might expect as voters begin to focus on the race.

Utah Foundation, a Salt Lake-based independent research organization, sponsored the event to give gubernatorial candidates an opportunity to outline their positions on the issues of most concern to Utahns.

Each election cycle, the organization sponsors the Utah Priorities Project, which involves conducting in-depth survey research on Utah’s most important issues, writing research briefs on those topics, and holding a variety of events to keep candidates accountable to the issues Utahns really care about. I serve as a Utah Foundation volunteer board member.

The luncheon on Thursday, which constituted the kickoff of the 2016 Utah Priorities Project, featured Gov. Gary Herbert, Republican challenger Jonathan Johnson, and Democratic candidates Michael Weinholtz and Vaughn Cook.

Herbert is clearly going to be the focus of attacks from Johnson on the right and Weinholtz on the left. The folksy Cook seemed to approach issues from a moderately liberal position. However, all the challengers will face difficult odds in knocking off Herbert. He has high approval ratings among conservatives and moderates and is one of the most popular governors in the country. Utah is also doing well economically, with low unemployment, which also helps Herbert.

To this point, the gubernatorial election has been overshadowed by the tumultuous presidential contest. The challengers, especially, haven’t been receiving much attention, and that works to the benefit of Herbert.

All the candidates at this stage in the campaign are focused on winning the support of state delegates who were elected in Tuesday’s party caucuses, and who will vote on the candidates at their respective state conventions. Candidates must win at least 40 percent of delegate votes in convention to appear on the primary ballot unless they also gathered signatures to get on the ballot. Herbert said he will be seeking the support of the convention delegates, but he has also collected signatures, as allowed by SB54, to guarantee a spot on the primary election ballot.

Herbert has raised significant amounts of money to prepare for the campaign. Weinholtz, CEO of CHG Healthcare, and Johnson, board chair of Overstock.com, are expected to have ample personal funds to run aggressive campaigns, in addition to what they can raise.

The top 10 issues the Utah Foundation research identified as most important to voters included health care, air quality, K-12 education, state taxes & government spending, jobs & the economy, water supply & quality of life, crime, partisan politics, homelessness & poverty, and the environment.

At the event, Johnson and Weinholtz criticized Herbert for not being aggressive enough in solving air pollution problems. Herbert noted the steps the state has taken and is taking and said air quality has improved by 35 percent, even while the state’s population has increased by 400,000 people. Cook said bad air quality is caused by everyone, and everyone is responsible to improve it.

The candidates also clashed on education funding and Medicaid expansion. For more information about their positions, see coverage in the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune.

The mission of Utah Foundation is to “promote a thriving economy, a well-prepared workforce, and a high quality of life for Utahns by performing thorough, well-supported research that helps policymakers, business and community leaders, and citizens better understand complex issues and providing practical, well-reasoned recommendations for policy change.”