Flash back to 2012 when when Dan Liljenquist was desperately trying to get Orrin Hatch to debate ahead of their GOP primary matchup.
Hatch had nothing to gain and everything to lose by engaging with Liljenquist. In the end, Hatch was able to dictate the terms of engagement by allowing a single debate on the radio – out of the view of TV cameras and away from the public eye.
A new coalition of media outlets and educational institutions aims to prevent that kind of electoral “keep away” in the future by partnering on a series of televised political debates. With every major TV station in Utah on board, it will be very hard for the candidates in major races to say no.
The Utah Debate Commission plans to host debates in Utahs four Congressional races as well as the Attorney General contest on college campuses around Utah. The major TV stations will partner to produce and televise the forums.
Former Gov. Olene Walker, who is on the Debate Commission board, says she hopes the new organization will create a “culture of debate” in Utah politics.
“There has been a decline in the number of people voting in Utah because too few of them really know the candidates,” she said. “This should be part of the political process. There’s no excuse for not hearing from both sides of an issue.”
While the commission would not have made a difference in the Hatch/Liljenquist race as that was a primary contest. But, the aim is to make political debates more commonplace.
BYU political science professor Richard Davis says, while participation in the debates won’t be compulsory for candidates, they hope to make it difficult for politicians to avoid participating.
“How do we get candidates to come?” Davis asks. “We go ahead with the debate even if they don’t show up. We hope that the possibility of them forefiting that time will give them pause.”
One of the stickiest issues will be determining who will get a golden ticket to participate in the television debates. The group plans to commission a poll in August of this year. Any candidate getting 10% support in that survey will be invited to participate.
Former Republican Senator Bob Bennett and Democrat Scott Howell will chair the commission.
Walker stresses the project will be completely bi-partisan and independent.
“Our board is made up with people from both parties, but there are a number of members who I don’t even know what party they belong to,” she said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for people to hear from the candidates they’ll be voting for. We want to educate people on the major issues facing the state.”
The debates will be held on college campuses across Utah from Logan to Cedar City in order to get away from what Davis calls a “Salt Lake-centric” schedule.
“That will allow people from across the state to be in the audience and raise questions that are important to their region.”
The commission is raising money through private donations in order to fund the effort.