To be frank, I remember very little of Thursday’s House District 34 debate between Republican Mr. Macade Jensen and Democrat Dr. Karen Kwan. Not because it wasn’t an interesting debate; it was. If you don’t believe me, listen KCPW’s recording, watch ABU’s stream, or read through ABU’s twitter feed. My legislative haze comes from the fact I was given the incredible opportunity to moderate Thursday’s debate. It was a dream come true, but that meant I spent most of the evening feeling like I was about to pass out. Up until that point, all my debate work was behind the scenes. I researched topics, revised the questions, attended staff meetings, took a lot of notes, and wrote post-debate blogs—none of which is any easier and all of which is more time consuming but doesn’t have the same effect on your nerves.
Moderating could be the final round of the multi-tasking Olympics. You have a stack of housekeeping notes, more questions than you can ask, and a stop watch. Your job is to give the intro, clarify—and remember—the debate format, follow response order procedures, ask questions—making sure you get to the same number of each candidate’s requested topic areas—manage the audience, conclude the debate, and thank all the right people. And you need to do all of it in 58 minutes and 30 seconds to make it a perfect hour of radio. It’s safe to say, it was a lot harder than Anderson Cooper makes it look.
The portions of the debate I recall best is the discussion of party politics and the Republican supermajority. The candidates fundamentally disagreed on the effectiveness of the current Republican supermajority and transparency in the Utah legislature. Dr. Kwan asserted that too much happened behind caucus doors, meaning little was accomplished and most of that was without transparency. Mr. Jensen responded by stating that the caucus doors only closed twice in the last legislative session and that being a member of the supermajority would amplify his voice in the House, allowing him to accomplish more as a representative than she.
Whether one likes it or not, Gallup declared Utah one of the two most Republican states in the nation in 2015. Gallup’s not wrong because Utah hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1980, the state has been run by a Republican trifecta—the combination of a Republican governor, house majority, and senate majority—since 1992, currently the longest streak in the country. As of this month, Republicans hold 63 of the 75 Utah State House seats and 23 of the 29 Utah State Senate seats. And (valid, nationally recognized) accusations of gerrymandering aside, there are a little over 1.3 million active registered voters in the state of Utah—according to Utah.gov—and as of October 3, 647,188 of them are Republicans, 145,145 are Democrats, 491,180 are unaffiliated and around 25,000 belong to other parties. Assuming the independent voters are not exclusively Democratic, Republicans far outweigh Democrats in the state in terms of active registered voters, mirroring legislative proportions fairly closely. Does that mean the Republican legislators and state leaders hold the same values and vote on legislation exactly as their Republican constituents would? Absolutely not. Does this mean Democrats and third-party candidates shouldn’t challenge Republicans in any and every election? Absolutely not. If I didn’t think public discourse, political dialogue, and competing ideas were essential to a healthy democracy, I wouldn’t be involved in this debate series.
All this data is not to make the argument that Utah’s state legislature perfectly reflects the will of the citizens or that it should stay as heavily partisan as it is—I cannot see myself ever making that argument. I am (perhaps circuitously) setting up the most unique moment of the House District 34 debate. The last question I asked the candidates was why a voter who is undecided or of the opposite party should vote for them, rather than their opponent. Dr. Kwan affirmed her belief in bipartisanship and the inclusion of diverse voices, and that her goal is to serve constituents, not be the voice of a single party. That is exactly the type of appeal to independent, small party, and moderate Republican voters she needs to make, considering her comparatively small base. Mr. Jensen, on the other hand, quoted Dr. Kwan. He claimed she once called him a “Democrat in Secret.” I can only assume she did so with the above data in mind, thinking accusations of a leftward lean would alienate him from strong Republican and conservative voters on which his election may depend. Indeed, the statement may have served as a kill shot in a Republican primary. However, Republican voters choosing between a centrist Republican and a self-identifying Democrat will probably still choose the Republican, moderate or not. The moderation may even help. What’s more, centrist Democrats may take Dr. Kwan at her word that Mr. Jensen is secretly a Democrat and choose to vote for the Democrat most likely (remember all that data) to be elected and able to work with the legislative supermajority in Utah’s Republican trifecta.
Of course, I won’t rule out the possibility that as a student of rhetoric and political communication, I’m reading too far into and attributing too much significance to one answer to a relatively simple question. Like I said, I spent most of the night trying not to freak out or fall over. Listen to the debate and decide for yourself. As a well-informed voter on election day, you’ll be glad you did.