SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s 4th District, considered one of the nation’s most competitive congressional seats this election year, is largely living up to its billing in the contentious race between Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams and Republican Burgess Owens.
Millions of dollars have poured into Utah from both Republican and Democratic political action committees to fill the airwaves with negative TV commercials, and the candidates themselves are also going after each other even as the COVID-19 pandemic has limited a lot of traditional campaigning.
McAdams, 45, is Utah’s only Democrat in Congress and is portraying himself as an independent, a moderate willing to work across the aisle and vote against his party while still supporting issues important to Democrats, such as preserving the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Owens, 69, is endorsed by President Donald Trump and has painted Democrats as Marxists and socialists out to undermine the American way of life, going so far as to label that party’s leaders as “narcissists” and “sociopaths” who “love misery.” He says the 4th District is key to the GOP reclaiming control of the U.S. House.
The candidates participated in only a single debate, held Oct. 12 by the Utah Debate Commission, where they staked out different positions on a range of issues, such as whether protections for pre-existing medical conditions are in jeopardy — McAdams says they are, Owens says they are not — while more or less agreeing on others, like the need to target federal coronavirus relief.
There was also friction over Owens’ appearances on programs associated with the far-right QAnon conspiracy as well as what he’s said about Democrats, and Owens repeatedly attempted to tie McAdams to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California.
The latest Federal Election Commission financial disclosures show a much more competitive race financially than the last time the candidates filed the forms when McAdams had $2.6 million in campaign cash on June 30 compared to less than $91,000 for Owens.
Owens’ campaign reported bringing in $2.5 million since then — thanks in part to fundraising by big-name Republicans including the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., with $1 million in cash on hand. McAdams reported raising another $1.4 million, with about $637,000 in cash on hand when the forms were filed Thursday.
There’s little doubt the election will be close, said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
“I think that’s just what we expect from the 4th District. It’s a Republican-leaning district that has enough independents and moderates to make it competitive,” Karpowitz said.
In an election year dominated by the bitter battle for the White House that has pitted the GOP president against former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, Karpowitz said both candidates have struggled — McAdams in distancing himself from the national Democratic Party, and Owens in focusing less on “broad principles” and more on issues.
The political science professor said McAdams “has done everything humanly possible” to separate himself from Pelosi and “has pretty masterfully occupied the center lane on issues. Whether that’s enough is still in question,” particularly given that national party politics now overshadow other races across the country.
That affects Owens, too, he said, because the Republican Party is “now defined simply by Donald Trump and Donald Trump doesn’t have a clear and a consistent set of issue positions that he is making the heart of his campaign. That just muddies things down the ballot.”
Still, Karpowitz said, “Owens has some advantages that he’s used well. He’s very good about talking to a certain segment of the Republican Party. He has honed those skills on Fox News. He does have a very compelling life story” as a conservative Black man raised in the segregated South.
But the “nationalization” of the congressional race is “not consistent with the way Utahns like to think about themselves or their politics. It’s also not consistent with some of the more pragmatic attempts we have had in the state to find creative solutions to public policy problems,” Karpowitz said.
Polls have shown a tight race and McAdams has long been seen as one of the most vulnerable members of Congress seeking reelection after winning in the district that includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties in 2018 by less than 700 votes over two-term Rep. Mia Love, the first Black Republican woman in Congress.
A year ago, McAdams was targeted directly by Trump’s reelection campaign as part of a national “Stop the Madness” effort to defend the president against the impeachment proceedings then underway. But the president’s supporters gathered outside McAdams’ West Jordan office were outnumbered by a crowd backing the inquiry.
McAdams ended up joining all but a handful of House Democrats in voting to impeach Trump, saying his “duty is to the Constitution and to our country. What the president did was wrong.” He said during the debate that he stands by his vote.
The impeachment issue was expected to be a big part of the Republican’s campaign strategy to reclaim the 4th District, but that was before COVID-19 struck and seized the public’s attention. McAdams is one of the few members of Congress who contracted the deadly virus, and was hospitalized for eight days,
He has held numerous news conferences in recent months to showcase his work in Congress, including to stop the resumption of nuclear weapons testing in southern Nevada that’s being considered by Trump. Owens once said he supported the president’s proposal, but later said he does not.
Republicans took some time to settle on a 4th District candidate. In the summer of 2019, Love toyed with running saying she believed no candidate had emerged who could beat McAdams. An early GOP favorite, state Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, later announced a run but dropped out, citing business concerns.
Owens, a first-time candidate, entered the field last November and was one of four Republicans who qualified for the June 30 primary ballot. He won what was seen as a wide-open election, defeating state Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, former KSL Newsradio host Jay Mcfarland and nonprofit CEO Trent Christensen.
His past bankruptcies have been highlighted by Democratic super PACs, something that Owens refers to on his campaign website as part of his “multiple opportunities to experience personally the blessing of starting anew” in “our great nation of second chances.”
In his speech to the mostly virtual Republican National Convention in August, Owens talked of losing everything after a decade in the NFL that culminated in a Super Bowl championship, then having to move his family of six into a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and work as a chimney sweep by day and a security guard at night.
According to his candidate financial disclosures with the U.S. House, Owens now earns $1,000 a month from a charity he founded, Second Chance 4 Youth, as well as additional money from book sales, speaking engagements, multilevel marketing customers and his Social Security payments and NFL pension.
He said a disclosure filed last December listing between $1 million and $5 million owed to the Internal Revenue Service was a mistake. An amended report put the amount at $6,500, but no debt to the IRS is listed on his most recent filing.
Owens has not been available for interviews for this story.
McAdams told the Deseret News that “bridge builders” like himself are needed in Congress now more than ever as the nation deals with the unprecedented health and economic effects of the pandemic.
“People are really worried. I think they expect us in Washington to put politics aside and come together to find solutions to these challenges,” he said. “And that’s who I am and that’s what my record has been in Washington, and who I’ll continue to be.”
After a decade in politics, including a stint in the Utah Legislature, McAdams said voters know who he is. He said voters need to know the same about Owens.
“They know the mistakes that I’ve made. They know the contributions that I’ve made as well. I think people are able to assess my record,” McAdams said, adding “my opponent is new to politics and so voters are just learning about him and some of the decisions he’s made in his life, and I think they’re finding there’s some controversy there.”
Owens said at a recent University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics forum that he decided to make his first bid for public office to help get the House back under Republican control and “put those values that our country is built upon, education, faith, free markets and the family unit, put those in the forefront.”
Calling himself a “warning buoy,” Owens said Americans could lose those values because “there is an ideology that wants to take it away from us.” He said the fight for Utah’s 4th District is between Democrats who want to keep “their power and their chaos” while the GOP “want to hold onto our culture and our country.”