SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, was holding his lead over Republican Burgess Owens in updated results released for the 4th Congressional District after the polls closed Tuesday night.

McAdams was ahead by more than 7,700 votes, with 49.5% of the vote to just over 46% for Owens, in one of the nation’s most competitive congressional races. It is seen as a bellwether for how successful Democrats will be in in their efforts to expand their majority in the U.S. House.

Nearly 222,000 ballots have been counted in the district.

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McAdams, 45, a former state lawmaker and then Salt Lake County mayor, was elected to the seat representing portions of Salt Lake, Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties two years ago, defeating two-term GOP Rep. Mia Love by less than 700 votes.

He spent election night at Pat’s Barbeque in Salt Lake City near his campaign headquarters, arriving before 6 p.m. to hand out preordered takeout meals to dozens of supporters in their cars before heading to a reserved room in the back of the restaurant to watch returns with his family and campaign staff.

“We look at the numbers right now and we feel good,” McAdams said. “People are ready to move past the controversy and chaos of our politics. I think people are ready for bridge-builders and people who are going to help us heal. That’s who I am. I think the voters had a stark choice in this election.”

The congressman said while there are still more returns to be tabulated, he believes voters are responding to his “track record as somebody who puts people before party and will put Utah first.”

Owens, 69, a former NFL player, author and Fox News contributor, is making his first bid for elected office.

“We’re excited about being where we are now. The way I’ve always looked at a game, the fourth quarter, you put everything you can into it and all you can do is look back and say, ‘I gave it my all,’” Owens told reporters at a Utah GOP event in Sandy for candidates.

He was ahead in the first results released Tuesday night, which only included Utah County and then fell behind as Salt Lake County numbers came in. But Owens said he expects a big turnout by Republicans on Election Day to close the gap as more votes are reported.

“Our strength has always been down south. So far, those numbers have not been brought into the picture yet. So again, I’m looking for those numbers to continue to add up,” Owens said. “It would have been nice if we had just kind of had some results, some resolve right now. But we’ll hang in until it comes in.”

Republican Burgess Owens, left, and Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, participate in the 4th Congressional District debate at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020 in this composite image. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Well over $22 million has been spent in the race that saw McAdams labeled one of the most vulnerable members of Congress up for reelection. Much of the money came from national Republican and Democratic groups, but the candidates themselves reported spending a total of more than $8.5 million by mid-October.

The campaign cash largely was used to flood Utah airwaves with attack ads from both McAdams and Owens. Even leaders of Utah’s Republican and Democratic state parties have said there’s so much negativity that voters have stopped paying attention to the race.

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The most recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll in mid-October had Owens leading McAdams by a single percentage point, 46% to 45%, prompting the Florida-based pollster, Scott Rasmussen, to declare the race “as pure a toss-up as can possibly be.”

Rasmussen said the outcome will be telling nationally because “if Owens wins, that suggests the Democrats won’t have big gains in the House this year. If McAdams wins it could be a sign just like it was two years ago, that it’s a pretty good night for the Democrats.”

In their only debate, sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission, McAdams and Owens clashed over whether preexisting conditions will be protected if the GOP succeeds in repealing the Affordable Care Act and other issues, including the root of racial tension that erupted nationwide over the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police.

Owens recalled growing up Black in the segregated South and said, “the idea that we’re a systemic racist county is totally false.” He was also critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. McAdams said there’s been “incredible progress” made against racism but “we also have more we can do.” 

The campaigns for each candidate tried to tie both candidates to national figures — McAdams to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Owens to President Donald Trump, who endorsed his candidacy and whose son, Donald Trump Jr., came to Utah to help him raise money.

Derek Brown, Utah Republican Party chairman, elbow bumps 4th Congressional District candidate Burgess Owens, who is running against Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, at a Republican election night event at the Utah Association of Realtors building in Sandy on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Owens initially lagged significantly behind McAdams in fundraising, but brought in $1.1 million more than the congressman during the three-month reporting period ending Sept. 30 and also outraised him in the last filing with the Federal Election Commission.

While McAdams was always expected to face a tough reelection as a Democrat in a GOP-leaning congressional district, it wasn’t clear who his Republican opponent would be until Owens won a wide-open, four-way primary election on June 30.

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Just over 43.5% of GOP primary voters selected Owens over state Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan; former KSL Newsradio host Jay Mcfarland; and nonprofit CEO Trent Christensen. Owens had finished second behind Coleman at the state GOP convention, where three other candidates were eliminated by delegates.

It took two weeks in 2018 before the 4th District race was called for McAdams and nearly another week before Rep. Love gave her concession speech. McAdams said Tuesday he believes that with so many voters casting their ballots early, the outcome could be clear in just a few days.

There are two third-party candidates on the ballot in the 4th District, the United Utah Party’s Jonia Broderick, who suspended her campaign in mid-October and endorsed McAdams, and Libertarian John Molnar. Broderick had less than 2% of the vote and Molnar, nearly 3%.

Contributing: Dennis Romboy

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