Analysis: Who Won the First Herbert/Weinholtz Debate?

Gary Herbert and Mike WeinholtzThere was an extraordinary moment on Friday during the first debate between Gov. Gary Herbert and Democratic challenger Mike Weinholtz where Herbert left himself wide open to a devastating counterpunch by Weinholtz.

But the Democratic challenger either didn’t see it or know how to take advantage of it.

During closing statements, Herbert said he was willing to “sit down with anyone to work out problems” facing Utah. Of course, this flies in the face of his “Available Jones” comment, when he was recorded saying he was willing to meet with donors anytime, anywhere.

Weinholtz spoke next, and he whiffed. Weinholtz spent his final minute of the contest reiterating his talking points about how Utah’s economy is not working for everyone.

Had he seized on Herbert’s mistake, it would have been the moment everyone would have talked about for weeks. Herbert has been insulated from any fallout about his “Available Jones” comment. His GOP primary challenger, Jonathan Johnson, was unable to get any traction out of it. But Friday, Herbert served it up on a silver platter, but Weinholtz opted to look at the dessert cart instead.

This had happened before, where Herbert committed an unforced error and his opponent was unable to take advantage of it. In 2010, Herbert attacked Democrat Peter Corroon’s decision to send his kids to a private, parochial school instead of public school. Herbert suggested that Corroon could not be an effective advocate for public schools. Additionally, Herbert attacked Corroon’s plans to increase math and science education, insinuating that might lead to the elimination of LDS seminary classes.

At the time, both attacks were seen as crossing a line – bringing Corroon’s children into the campaign and subtly pointing out that Corroon was not LDS. However, Corroon’s response to both was milquetoast at best, and Herbert skated.

Because Weinholtz failed to capitalize on Herbert’s mistake, it’s easy to say Herbert was the winner.

But, there are some reasons both men “won” the day.

Reasons the first debate was a “win” for Weinholtz:

  • He got Herbert to debate him. Plain and simple, getting Herbert to engage with him is a big deal. Herbert has a massive lead in the polls. There’s no reason for him to even acknowledge Weinholtz because that brings attention to his opponent – something Herbert does not want or need to do.
  • The first debate gave Weinholtz a scouting report for the next, and bigger debate. Weinholtz clearly got under Herbert’s skin with his attacks on the fight over control of federal lands. While that issue is not enough for him to win in November, he can use it to knock Herbert off his stride and maybe force another error or two from the usually unflappable governor.

Reasons the first debate was a “win” for Herbert:

  • The debate was on a Friday afternoon. Nobody was paying attention. Not very many people watched the entire exchange. That means, whatever points Weinholtz was able to score, basically were for naught.
  • Scouting reports work both ways. Herbert knows how Weinholtz is going to attack him now, and will be ready for whatever the Democrat throws at him during the Gubernatorial debate on September 26.
  • Herbert was engaged, while Weinholtz stuck to the script. Weinholtz spent a lot of time looking at his notes on the podium, and it was noticeable. Herbert, no stranger to speaking in these kinds of forums, was relaxed and engaged. The debate didn’t materialize until the day before the event. It’s probably no stretch of the imagination to suggest that Weinholtz was not as prepared as he would have liked to be. How does a challenger prepare for a debate with a popular incumbent in less than 18 hours? Weinholtz is going to have to be much better prepared when they face off next Monday.
  • Herbert got away with one. As detailed above, Herbert made a huge mistake, but Weinholtz failed to inflict any damage. Herbert knows what he did, and won’t make the same mistake again.
  • It was a friendly crowd for Herbert. Herbert was right at home in front of the Utah League of Cities and Towns. He’s been governor for seven years, and he knows how to connect with other government officials. His rant against federal government overreach was music to the ears of many in the audience. There’s nothing like playing in front of a receptive audience.

If this were a boxing match, Herbert would have won on a unanimous decision. It wasn’t a knockout. Neither man landed a haymaker. They mostly stuck to body blows, and Herbert was able to dance away from Weinholtz every time he tried to tie him up on the ropes.

Frankly, Friday’s debate was boring. Very low-key and “wonky.” That lack of fireworks is exactly how Herbert wants it. Weinholtz has to find a fuse to light, and fast.