Challengers seeking to unseat U.S. Sen. MIke Lee (R-UT) participated in a debate Thursday hosted by the Utah Debate Commission. Lee declined to attend.

SALT LAKE CITY – The debate hosted by the Utah Debate Commission for Senate candidates on Thursday was like a 1980s Dean Martin celebrity roast without the guest of honor.

With Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) missing, candidates Becky Edwards and Ally Isom spend the hour-long event convincing voters that they “aren’t Mike Lee” and trading polite jabs about who would have the best chance of unseating the incumbent in the state’s GOP primary on June 28.

In remarks to reporters after the event, Isom referred to herself as a “Reagan Republican” and the only conservative alternative to Lee.

“(Becky Edwards) was rated the most liberal Republican in the Utah House of Representatives seven of the nine sessions she served there. The other two, she was rated Number 2,” Isom said. “Adam Brown from Brigham Young University based that rating on her voting record.

“Tonight was an opportunity for Utahns to see that I’m a reliable conservative and that’s how I will act in office.”

In her turn to speak to the media, Edwards deflected that criticism, saying that her campaign is about defeating Mike Lee.

Edwards repeated her campaign mantra, accusing Lee of ineffective leadership at every turn.

“I’m here to hold Mike Lee, our senior senator, accountable for his ineffectiveness for the state of Utah for the past 12 years,” Edwards said.

“He ran on two things,” she added. “He ran on fiscal responsibility and the way to achieve that was a balanced budget amendment. And he ran on limited government, to be achieved by term limits.

“We are sitting here, 12 years later, and we’ve seen absolutely no action on either of those fronts. I think the people of Utah deserve an opportunity to have our elected official held accountable.”

Lee had participated in a debate hosted by the Utah Republican Party on Wednesday. The GOP discouraged its incumbent candidates from participating in the other scheduled events after it failed to reach agreement with the debate commission on moderators and questions.

The debate on Wednesday was at least civil and Lee was able to pass the blame for inflation, high gas prices, federal debt and other issues to President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress with some justification.

With Lee absent from Thursday’s debate, however, the kid gloves came off and his challengers piled on.

Isom and Edwards found fault with Lee over inaction on abortion rights, gun control, election integrity, out-of-control federal spending and term limits. The only hot button issue they failed to address was immigration reform, Edwards acknowledged during a post-debate discussion with reporters.

“You’ve stayed too long in Washington when you forget the people who sent you there,” Isom said. “When people won’t work with you and you can’t get bills passed.”

Edwards said that she’s running for the U.S. Senate because Congress is broken.

“Utahns are tired of leaders with no vision and no results,” she emphasized. “Utahns expect and deserve elected officials that do not focus on personal gain, cronyism and (District of Columbia) politics.

“Empty promises and obstructionism don’t fix roads, defend our country or address drought.”

Lee will face Isom and Edwards in the June 28 GOP primary. Voters will begin to receive their ballots in the mail on June 7.

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