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What’s happening in Utah’s four congressional district races?

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Republican Burgess Owens speaks during a campaign launch event at Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019. Burgess announced Wednesday he will run against Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, in the 4th Congressional District.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Contests in all four Utah congressional districts are underway. While traditional retail campaigning is limited, this does not stop the usual posturing, accusations and spinning of messages. We explore some of the details.

The competition in the 4th District between Ben McAdams and Burgess Owens has become a heated fight, at least in the TV advertising. What is the status of the race?

Pignanelli: “National Democrats are attacking a Utah Republican congressional candidate for his indebtedness and bankruptcies. What better qualifications for Congress could anyone have?” — a seasoned political observer.

The 4th Congressional District race is a funhouse mirror reflection of the presidential election — distorted but recognizable. The Democratic candidate enjoys high approval ratings and affection from all political types. But some have angst with left-wingers of his party. The Republican nominee has a compelling personal story of courage and tenacity. Yet, he frequently courts controversy with spontaneous remarks. As with the national contest, undecided voters are navigating between the two personalities. 

Other elements counterbalance each other. For example, McAdams has amassed a huge war chest. Conversely, he will not have the benefit of three ballot initiatives attracting flocks of voters.

In 2018, the Utah County portion of this district was strangled by mass confusion with mail and in-person voting. The new County Clerk, Amelia Powers Gardner, increased the competency of the elections department by 1,000% after assuming office in 2019. This will mean a smooth process for her constituents and could impact the race.

Polling results are forcing Democrat and Republican national parties to expend resources on this race. Thus, Utah airwaves will be blanketed by their ridiculous, cookie-cutter uncreative ads. Whoever hires local talent with a compelling message will dominate voter considerations.

As with amusement park mirrors, this race will be entertaining.

Webb: McAdams is popular and moderate. His ads portray him as a fiscally conservative, nice family guy who wants unity and problem-solving. Meanwhile, he’s sticking a knife between Owens’ ribs. 

Owens only wins if he ties McAdams to liberal national Democrats. McAdams helps Democrats stay in control of the House and push left-wing legislation. Owens has to make the case that when Nancy Pelosi needs McAdams’ vote, she gets it (like to impeach the president).

But I think Owens was slow getting his campaign going after the primary election. He hasn’t defined himself well or framed the election, and all the scary Democratic attack ads are hurting. Owens needs a really big turnout from Utah County conservatives to have a chance.

The other races: District 1 is an open race to replace Rob Bishop, with Republican Blake Moore vs. Democrat Darren Parry); District 2: Four-term incumbent Chris Stewart is opposed by Democrat Kael Weston; In District 3, two-term incumbent Republican John Curtis is facing Democrat Devin Thorpe. What are political operatives saying about these races?

Pignanelli: The huge number of Republican voters in these districts provides a massive head start for their party’s nominee. Further, the pandemic limits the ability of Democratic challengers to utilize retail campaigning. As with Donald Trump, there will be limited coattails from Joseph Biden.

All three Republican candidates were not the early favorites, yet they succeeded with strong messaging and sound strategy. The Democratic nominees must construct a similar approach to attract GOP voters. Regardless of the outcome, all contestants should be commended for creating competition in the marketplace of ideas.

Webb: Even though Blake Moore is a newcomer and is barely known, he’ll easily win the 1st District. Kael Weston is putting up a feisty challenge against Chris Stewart, and getting under his skin, but he’s too liberal for the district. Stewart certainly needs to mount a campaign and reconnect with voters, but he should enjoy a healthy victory margin.

Devin Thorpe is a great guy (I know him personally), but so is the moderate incumbent John Curtis. Thorpe doesn’t have enough time or resources to build sufficient visibility to defeat the popular incumbent.  

Could the debates between these congressional candidates, and those featuring the presidential contenders, influence the outcome of these races?

Pignanelli: Especially under pandemic conditions, overwhelming excellent performance or complete embarrassment by a candidate in a debate will be broadcast throughout social media. This dynamic ensures impacts throughout the ballot.

Webb: I think amid the many crises facing the country and state, people are paying attention to politics. A good debate performance, amplified by social media, can make a difference. It’s unfortunate the presidential debates are starting after many election ballots will have already been mailed.

For political junkies, the events of the next six weeks will be fun to watch.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.