SALT LAKE CITY — Democratic attorney general candidate Greg Skordas says incumbent GOP Attorney General Sean Reyes "played" the Utah Debate Commission by getting it to change the dates of their only debate.
Skordas said his biggest concern is that the Oct. 21 debate is scheduled after mail-in ballots were sent to voters and just days before the Nov. 3 election.
"I think that was calculated on their part," he said of the Reyes campaign. "We knew that from day one."
The debate commission initially scheduled the debate on Oct. 1, but moved it to Oct. 21 to accommodate Reyes.
Reyes said he didn't receive special treatment.
He said his father died earlier this year in Hawaii, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic he and his extended family haven't been able to travel there to hold a funeral. He said his campaign told the debate commission that it looked like they would be able to do so in late September or early October.
"This is my team. I did not discuss it directly with the debate commission," Reyes said Thursday on KSL Newsradio's "Live Mic" with Lee Lonsberry.
Reyes said his campaign told the commission there would be a high likelihood he would have to pull out if the debate were scheduled during the time he would be in Hawaii.
"From what my team had communicated to me, they were happy and willing to find another date and they selected the 21st. There wasn't any magic about the 21st," he said.
Reyes, though, held events during the time his campaign told the commission he could be in Hawaii — a meet-and-greet in Fish Haven, Idaho, on Sept. 26 and another meet-and-greet at Sundance on Sept. 29-30. Reyes also hosted a policy summit and vice presidential debate watch party at the Montage in Deer Valley on Oct. 7-9.
Skordas said he doesn't believe anything Reyes says.
"He had his campaign schedule laid out for weeks and weeks and weeks. He didn't change a damn thing," Skordas said. "We'll see if he shows up for the scheduled debate. He got what he wanted, which was to put it over as long as possible after mail-in ballots went out. There was a very calculated decision that he made, and he won. The debate commission was played."
Reyes said his family has still not been able to travel to Hawaii to lay his father to rest because of the pandemic.
"I don't think there's any controversy about it. I understand my opponent wants to make it an issue," he said. "There are other debates that were scheduled by the commission after the ballots were being released."
County clerks were to send out mail-in ballots starting Oct. 13. Three of the debate commission debates were scheduled for after that date, including for the 2nd and 3rd congressional districts.
The debate commission put out the original date without consulting with either candidate.
It has a policy not to change dates, but it does reconsider when there is a death in the family, said Wayne Niederhauser, commission co-chairman.
The commission provided both campaigns with three alternatives to the original Oct. 1 date — Sept. 22, Oct. 8 and Oct. 21 — and the only one that worked was Oct. 21, he said.
"Everybody agreed to it," he said.
When Skordas realized the debate would be held after mail-in ballots went out, it caused him "deep concern."
But the commission wasn't able to change the date, Niederhauser said. He said the commission received a Reyes campaign flyer listing those late September and early October events. But he said he doesn't know the Reyes campaign's intent and won't make a judgement on that.
"Our position is that we have a policy. We followed that policy and procedure," he said. "It appears that something changed or that we were played in that situation but we acted in good faith as the debate commission."
Reyes campaign consultant Alan Crooks said there was no misrepresentation to the commission. He said the campaign worked hard to make sure the debate went forward. Crooks said he also told the commission he'd find another organization to host an attorney general debate if they couldn't make any dates work.
A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll last month shows Reyes with a wide margin over Skordas, 47% to 24%. But nearly a quarter of voters were undecided and 5% favored Libertarian Rudy Bautista.
Increased mail-in voting, COVID-19, and a variety of state-by-state election formats contribute to a unique 2020 election. As a result, it is likely that many close House and Senate races, as well as the presidency, will not be called on Nov. 3.
States may also shift in outcome in the days or weeks following the election — an expected change experts have warned about as results are returned. While human error happens, both mail-in and in-person voting have extremely low rates of fraud.
The state of Utah has used vote-by-mail since 2012. It has safeguards in place to make sure every ballot it receives is legitimate.