Republican candidates face off in competent, yet tepid debate

20200601 GOV Debate

Monday night’s big televised debate between the four Republican gubernatorial candidates came off without a hitch — no big gaffes by any of the four, no home runs hit out of the park, either.

The four, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, and former state Republican Party chairman Thomas Wright, acquitted themselves well. All were smooth and articulate, showing once again this is an accomplished field of professional campaigners.

As was the moderator retired KSL-TV anchor Bruce Lindsay — who kept the men’s comments moving and interrupted them when he felt they were off course.

The premiere Utah Debate Commission’s event was broadcast on the major TV stations in the state but did lack some of the spontaneity that perhaps could have come if the format had allowed the four more flexibility in questioning each other or bantering over each other’s comments.

You can watch or listen to the hour-long debate at the commission’s website, here.

And while the moderator/reporter/student questions were certainly appropriate — one that was not asked is what the four thought about GOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s recent political faux pas, brought to light by last week, when Herbert met with Wright and asked him to get out of the governor’s race and support Cox, whom Herbert has hand-picked to succeed him.

In fact, the only real arguments came upon a self-inflicted wound: Cox said the only “politicizing” of the state’s reactions to the coronavirus battle — overseen by Herbert and Cox — comes “from those on this stage,” i.e. Hughes, Huntsman and Wright.

This was a claim that really can’t be made — as dozens of groups and individuals have questioned the Herbert/Cox orders concerning the outbreak’s battles.

It’s not fair to say his three opponents are the only ones “politicizing” the state’s reaction to the virus, said Wright, when Cox has been running for governor for more than two years and using his LG office/virus facetime to do it.

Huntsman said he, Hughes and Wright, “have been locked up for months in our homes” unable to properly campaign while Cox is often seen in public in his coronavirus-fighting mode – abetted by Herbert — and “politicizing” the virus for Cox’s political benefit.

“While we sit under house arrest,” added Huntsman.

“Our civil rights have been taken away” by Herbert and Cox, said Hughes, referring to all Utahns, not just the candidates. When he is governor, said Hughes, he will pass a law that will guarantee civil rights in any future emergency, including the right to bear arms.

He, and the other two, criticized Herbert/Cox for implementing an emergency program (which didn’t really work) whereby those driving into Utah at the borders were automatically pinged on their cellphones, asking for a text response on if they were ill, where they were going and how long they would be staying in Utah.

Hughes said only when it was pointed out that it would be a Class B misdemeanor not to respond did Herbert say he wouldn’t prosecute anyone who refused to answer the questions — a clearly improper violation of civil rights.

Cox was also put on the defensive over $100 million in state aid going to single-source contracts on a variety of programs aimed at fighting the virus.

Huntsman said there still “is no transparent accountability” by those in charge in the state, including Cox, over those contracts.

“We need checks and balances” against gubernatorial executive orders, said Wright, who time and again said his three opponents “have held the three highest (state) offices in the land,” yet many problems still exist in governing the state. Time to elect an outsider, like him, not pick people who have “just passed the baton” of leadership back and forth for the last 16 years.

Cox repeated all the good things about Utah’s coronavirus fight — low number of infections, low death rates, compared to other states, quick to move to open up the economy, praised by national leaders for the state’s responses — all true. But the other three pointed out the problems that have arisen, especially with more than 100,000 Utahns out of work because of closing down the economy, as well.

Hughes said of the four candidates, he alone strongly stands with GOP President Donald Trump. “I’m the proven conservative” in the race, Hughes said.

Asked if climate change is in part human-caused, Cox, Huntsman and Wright all said yes, the science shows it. Hughes said no, that geologic history tells us the Earth’s climate has changed many times.

The other three said humans may not be the only cause, but certainly, there is a role being played by human actions.

In a bit of irony, Hughes said as speaker/lawmaker he oversaw a large tax cut, $400 million, the lowering of the state income tax to 5 percent and removal of the state sales tax on food.

Hughes was in the Legislature at that time, yes, and did support those moves, but it was Huntsman as governor that came up with those programs and pushed them — something Huntsman didn’t say in the debate, even when given the chance. 2News polling by Y2 Analytics shows Cox with 39 percent support among those who said they are likely to vote in the June 30 closed GOP primary, Huntsman with 32 percent support, Hughes with 23 percent support and Wright with just 6 percent support.

Wright said don’t believe those poll numbers; Hughes said the polling shows he alone is moving up in the race; Cox and Huntsman didn’t address the polling.

Mail in ballots to registered GOP voters with the four men in the governor’s race start going out next week.

There may be a few other “debates” still to come, although with social distancing still the order of the day it is unclear if there will be any before a live audience (no audience was present Monday), or with the four candidates all appearing on a common stage, as they did (six feet apart) Monday night.