Scott Howell, Pete Ashdown face off in first Democratic Senate debate in 20 years

Published: Wednesday, April 11 2012 9:46 p.m. MDT

DRAPER — The first debate in 20 years between Utah Democrats campaigning for U.S. Senate was held Wednesday night, pitting two candidates who have both run against six-term incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch previously and were hoping for another shot.

Scott Howell, former minority leader in the Utah state Senate, challenged Hatch in 2000, and Pete Ashdown, founder of the Utah-based Internet company XMission, ran against him in 2006. The two former candidates agreed on many issues during the more than hour-long debate hosted by Utah Women's Democratic Club at Juan Diego Catholic High School, and they focused on what made them qualified to beat Hatch.

Both Howell and Ashdown received about 31 percent of the vote when they ran against Hatch. Both, however, predicted 2012 is the year Democrats would beat the Senator.

"We as Democrats have a very unique situation," Howell said. "This is the best chance we've had in years to win a U.S. Senate seat (in Utah)."

Howell brushed off the assumption that Utah Democrats will have a tough time if Mitt Romney is the Republican presidential nominee, which would likely generate a big GOP voter turnout in November. 

He that Hatch had "lost contact with what's going on" during his 36 years in office. Ashdown said he didn't think focusing on Hatch's time in office was effective, however, saying he used that strategy in 2006 and it didn't work.

"The way you win is not by doing things the same way you have been doing things," Ashdown said. "The way you win is by being bold, being different."

Ashdown pledged his campaign would not take PAC money, saying he was inspired by President Obama's 2008 campaign.

"I'm not taking PAC money because I think it's part of the problem," Ashdown said. "I believe I can win this with small individual donations."

Ashdown asked Howell how much of his 2000 campaign budget was comprised of PAC money. Howell said although he did accept PAC money during his previous campaign,  he wasn't loyal to those that provided it.

"I felt like I was strong enough to do the right things for the people of Utah," Howell said.

Howell said he was attacked during his time in the state Senate because he "took tobacco money," but added that when it was offered to him, he was clear that he was supporting legislation to ban smoking in restaurants.

"If people want to contribute to me, they know the rules of my game," he said. "I'll never sell out to anyone other than the citizens of the great state of Utah."

Ashdown emphasized the need for transparency in government. He said if elected, he would publish his calendar online, allowing voters to see what he was doing and who he was meeting with. If just one senator would do that, he said, others would follow suit, allowing voters to see the impact "monied interests" have on their elected officials.

Ashdown said that although had not held elected office before, his experience in business made him qualified to run. Howell pointed to his victories against Republicans for state Senate as evidence he could beat Hatch.

Either candidate must receive at least 60 percent of the delegate vote at the state convention on Sept. 21 or face a June primary to decide the party's nominee.

E-mail: hschwarz@desnews.com

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