PROVO — Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, and his GOP primary opponent, former state lawmaker Chris Herrod, sparred in their first debate Tuesday over whether Curtis is conservative enough for 3rd Congressional District voters.
"I'm getting a little tired of your brand of conservatism being the right brand, as if I don't love the Constitution, as if I don't love this country as much as you do," Curtis said. "I suppose from the extremist view, everybody's a moderate."
The newest member of Utah's congressional delegation, elected last November in a special election to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, was responding to an accusation made by Herrod that his votes in Congress expanded government.
"It's not easy being conservative," Herrod said when asked to list the votes. Instead, Herrod said taxes went up during Curtis' time as mayor of Provo. "My frustration is that we can't be honest. It's fine if you're moderate or liberal. … Just own it."
Curtis said repeatedly throughout the hourlong debate sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission and held at KBYU-TV that he has held 50 town halls since being elected, and is "right in line" with his constituents.
The pair, who, along with political newcomer Tanner Ainge, previously squared off in last year's special election Republican primary, disagreed on a number of issues, including President Donald Trump's tariffs on China and various products.
Herrod said although in general he opposes tariffs, Trump should be given credit for being willing to go "to the brink" in imposing the taxes, intended to protect domestic markets by making foreign products more expensive.
Curtis, however, said tariffs were an area in which he disagrees with the president. He said Trump's tariffs are too broad-based and "not in Utah's best interest" because they are hurting businesses in the state.
Herrod reminded the audience he campaigned for Trump before the 2016 election and is behind the president's agenda, especially on building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico and other immigration issues.
Herrod also said he supports Trump's appointment of Utahn Ron Mortensen, an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, to a key U.S. State Department post over refugees and migration, citing his disaster relief work for the federal government.
Curtis said that while he doesn't know Mortensen well, "there is no way this Congressman will ever vote for a racist to fill that position." The president's nominees go before the Senate for confirmation, not the House.
Immigration is complicated, Curtis said, calling it "embarrassing" that the status of young people brought to the country illegally as children has yet to be resolved. He said border security would require more than just a wall.
There were also differences over what gun control measures were needed following the recent deadly school shootings in Florida and Texas.
Curtis said that as he watched news coverage, he promised himself that he "would conduct myself as if that was my own child or grandchild getting shot. … When you do that, you can't just hide behind the Second Amendment."
Noting he had spent much of his professional career with a company that constructs shooting ranges and had a high rating from the National Rifle Association, Curtis said he is "building a coalition of like-minded people in Congress" to look for answers.
Herrod said he had spoken at a pro-Second Amendment rally the same day thousands gathered to call for more gun control and was struck by how "genuinely frightened" many students seemed.
"There's never been a safer time for a child to be raised," Herrod said, calling school one of the safest places. "Somebody needs to give that reassuring voice, or people — as soon as they can vote — will take the Second Amendment away."
The candidates disagreed on the medical marijuana initiative going before voters in November, with Herrod saying he is still making up his mind and Curtis "reluctantly" opposing it because he said it confuses recreational and medical use.
Afterwards, Herrod said he hopes voters had an opportunity to see the differences between the two candidates. He said Curtis is not a conservative because he at one time headed the Utah County Democratic Party.
"I supported President Trump, I voted for him. I think that the state of Utah is now warming up to President Trump. He's done what he said he was going to do," Herrod told reporters.
During his time answering post-debate media questions, Curtis said his voting record and life show that he is "totally in line with Utah's conservative values. That makes me question, if (Herrod's) not there, does that mean he's an extremist."
The congressman also said what he is hearing from voters in the 3rd Congressional District is that they are "conflicted" about Trump because while they like some of what they see from the president, they still struggle with his personality.
"I think it is important to be independent and to be a representative of the 3rd District and not of the president," Curtis said, as well as for voters to remember "I'm running on my record, not the president's."