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Hunger strike urges more Senate race debates

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Republican activist McKay Christensen, a supporter of Dan Liljenquist's U.S. Senate candidacy, says he will start a hunger strike Saturday to protest Sen. Orrin Hatch's refusal to agree to more than a single debate before the June 26 primary. Courtesy photo

By Lee Davidson

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published May 17 2012 11:51AM
Updated Aug 28, 2012 11:34PM

McKay Christensen really hungers for a televised debate between Sen. Orrin Hatch and his GOP opponent, Dan Liljenquist. In fact, the 43-year-old father of five who volunteers for Liljenquist by distributing lawn signs plans a hunger strike until Hatch agrees to such a debate.

"I hope this will get attention and lead more people to demand a debate," he says about his plans to begin the strike on Saturday, 38 days before the June 26 primary.

"This election is important enough to the future of Utah that there should be a televised debate," he added. "Hatch is in the driver’s seat and feels like he doesn’t have to listen to a single person" and "can avoid a debate without it hurting him."

Dave Hansen, campaign manager for Hatch, says Christensen’s new version of hunger games "is not going to influence our position" and said Hatch is agreeing to only one debate on the Doug Wright Show on KSL Radio — despite pressure from TV stations and newspaper editorials urging more.

Hansen said Hatch is not agreeing to more because "of the Senate schedule, and the fact they have already had two debates and 17 other joint appearances" when Hatch took a couple weeks off from the Senate on top of a two-week recess to campaign in Utah before the state GOP convention.

The Liljenquist campaign is distancing itself from Christensen’s protest.

"We do not condone or encourage McKay Christensen’s method of drawing attention to the debates," Holly Richardson, campaign manager for Liljenquist, said.

"Bless his heart. He is passionate about wanting to draw attention to the lack of debates," she said, but added the campaign worries about his health, especially because it figures odds are against Hatch yielding to more debates.

Christensen, of Centerville, said he plans to begin his hunger strike by eating no solid food but continuing to drink liquids beginning Saturday after a Rocky Mountain Conservatives barbecue. He plans to post updates of his strike online on Facebook at a group page he titled, "I hunger for a debate."

"I just feel very strongly about this and wanted to find a way to bring a little pressure. A lot of Utahns are upset," said Christensen, who works at a family business that sells gloves.

Christensen said his family is not exactly excited about his plans and is a bit worried. He said his wife is encouraging him to consult with a doctor as the hunger strike proceeds to ensure he does not hurt his health, and that he will probably do so. Christensen, who is a large person, said many people on Facebook have been joking that he could stand to lose some weight anyway.

"But I really care about this. I was a state delegate. And before the state convention, Senator Hatch was very accessible — and I was able to meet with him several times," Christensen said. But since Hatch survived the convention, "he has not been accessible at all. I think it’s important that he stand up in a debate before the state."

Back in 1976 when Hatch first ran for the Senate, he was the GOP underdog and challenged the front-runner to a series of eight debates before the primary. "The people of Utah deserve the right to hear the candidates thus permitting them to judge for themselves who would be the best candidate," Hatch said at the time.

Hansen said a difference now is that neither candidate in 1976 was an incumbent senator, and both were campaigning full-time in Utah — and a longer time between the convention and primary allowed more opportunity for debates.

But Richardson said Hatch’s not agreeing to more debates shows "has taken the position that he no longer has to make his case to the people of Utah … and he can just coast to re-election."

Hansen rejected that characterization.

"That’s absolutely not true. The senator always takes every campaign seriously, and he is doing everything he can to make sure that he wins this election, which he will," Hansen said. "Debates are only one method of meeting voters."

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