The Utah Republican Party is urging candidates not to commit to participating in primary debates until it's guaranteed a say in the rules of the events, marking an unprecedented move that has sparked ire within the state GOP.

The state party should have a say in who moderates the debates and what questions are asked, Republican leaders argued in a statement late Tuesday. They noted that only GOP candidates are slated to participate in the primary debates hosted by the Utah Debate Commission in early June. However, the decision is drawing criticism from some Republicans who say it’s being used to shield incumbent Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) from debating.


“Late yesterday I was informed Lee may not be available for the upcoming June 2 candidate debate, hosted by the Utah Debate Commission. Then last night I got word the Utah Republican Party may be providing Lee air cover for his sudden unavailability,” said Ally Isom, who is vying to unseat Lee as the GOP nominee, in a statement. “I’ve been in politics long enough to know a scheme when I smell one. Some speculate Lee’s the one pulling the strings of our state GOP. Maybe it’s only a coincidence.”

Although the statement urged all GOP candidates to withhold from participating in primary debates, Isom said she had not received any “official communication” from the party.

Lee’s campaign has denied accusations that the incumbent is shying away from debates through the state party, with a representative telling the Salt Lake Tribune that his staff is only beginning to plan his pre-primary schedule and hasn’t made any commitments yet. The Utah Republican Party also defended its actions, noting it has not told candidates to abstain from debating altogether but only to withhold commitment until an agreement is reached.

“We just want to make sure that these debates are beneficial to the Republican Party because these are primaries. This is not a general election debate, and there’s no reason that the party should not be involved in these debates,” Utah Republican Party Chairman Carson Jorgensen told the Washington Examiner. “We have to make sure that all of our candidates are set going into the general election. If a third party comes in and pits our candidates against each other, that can really make a mess for us.”

It’s not entirely clear which candidates, if any, have committed or have waived their participation as the party continues to seek an agreement with the state debate commission, Jorgensen said. The commission has maintained it is independent of either party to ensure nonpartisan debates.

Lee’s possible absence could reflect a larger national trend of GOP candidates choosing to bow out of primary debates, following the lead of the Republican National Committee, which voted to withdraw itself from the commission responsible for conducting presidential debates. Herschel Walker, who is running for Senate in Georgia, has skipped two debates against his Republican rivals so far, and Tedd Budd, who is vying for a seat in North Carolina, has sat out of four primary debates.


It’s not yet clear whether Lee is planning to participate in the primary debate scheduled for June 2, with a campaign official telling the Deseret News on Wednesday it is still under consideration. Lee’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from the Washington Examiner. 

The incumbent was overwhelmingly voted as the GOP nominee during the Republican state convention on April 23. However, he still faces a primary election as challengers Isom and Becky Edwards qualified for the ballot via signature gathering.