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‘Bellwether’ race in Utah sees price tag top $22 million in competitive campaign

Negativity a ‘hallmark’ of 4th Congressional District battle, politics experts say

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.
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

SALT LAKE CITY — Turn on a TV, and chances are it won’t be long before you see attack ads aimed at one of the candidates in Utah’s 4th Congressional District — the state’s only Democrat in Congress Rep. Ben McAdams or his Republican challenger Burgess Owens.

Considered one of the most competitive congressional seats in the country, the price tag for the race is well over $22 million — more than $13.8 million in spending from outside groups as of last Friday, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, on top of the $8.5 million the candidates reported spending by mid-October.

“Both sides see this as really close,” said Florida-based independent pollster Scott Rasmussen, whose polling for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics had Owens, a former NFL player and frequent Fox News guest, leading McAdams by a single percentage point, 46% to 45%.

“You’ve got a Democrat running for reelection in a Republican-leaning district that sets up this very close battle,” Rasmussen said. “I continue to believe UT-4 is one of those bellwethers that will tell how well the election is going for each side.”

With Republicans focused on not becoming more of a minority in the Democratic-controlled U.S. House, the pollster said “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.”

How Trump vs. Biden impacts 4th District

Utah’s 4th District race may also be an indicator about what’s happening at the top of the ticket race between President Donald Trump and Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden. The Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows Trump with a double-digit lead in Utah.

But while the Republican president is also ahead in the 4th District, his level of support isn’t as strong there as in the state overall.

Half of the likely Utah voters polled statewide said they would vote for Trump, compared to 38% who back Biden. In the 4th District, however, the margin between the candidates drops from 12 percentage points to just 5, with Trump at 47% and Biden at 42%.

The president’s job approval numbers are also lower in the 4th District, 52% compared to 55% statewide. The same is true of how many voters view him favorably — 49% in the 4th District and 52% statewide. Biden’s favorability, meanwhile, goes up in the 4th District, to 42%, compared to 38% statewide.

The poll was conducted Oct. 12-17 of 800 likely voters in the 4th District and 1,000 likely voters statewide. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points in the 4th District, and plus or minus 3.1 percentage points statewide.

Rasmussen said the “cautious analyst” in him won’t rule out a win by Biden in the 4th District, but it would be “very surprising.” Utah hasn’t elected a Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. He said his national polling showed only a slight shift in the presidential race after the final debate between Trump and Biden on Oct. 22.

“Not a big degree of movement. With a strong Republican turnout, the president was just outside where he needs to be. So perhaps the debate helped the president and therefore Burgess Owens on the margin. Perhaps it stopped other people from drifting away,” the pollster said. “But it didn’t reset the race.”

It’s the presidential race voters feel most intensely about, Rasmussen said, even in Utah, where voters are also picking a new state leader in the gubernatorial race, a replacement for longtime GOP Rep. Rob Bishop in the 1st Congressional District, as well as whether to return two sitting Republican representatives to Congress in the 2nd and 3rd districts.

“I guarantee you, that whatever level of interest there is — and it sounds like there’s quite a bit in the UT-4 congressional race — people have stronger feelings about Trump and Biden in terms of their political views than they do either of these two,” he said.

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Brigham Young University Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said presidential elections heighten partisanship. That could make Utah something of an outlier this election year, if Republicans give Trump the state and unseat a Democratic congressman.

He said it could be that “Donald Trump wins Utah, maybe not as much as another Republican would have, but still handily, and a seat that was held by a moderate Democrat goes to the Republicans. That would be a movement against the tide that seems to be out there in the country right at this moment.”

Both Rasmussen and Karpowitz point out that McAdams has the advantage of incumbency, after the then-Salt Lake County mayor won the congressional seat in 2018 by defeating two-term Republican Rep. Mia Love by less than 700 votes.

But Karpowitz said it’s not clear how many Republican voters who are dissatisfied with their party’s presidential pick will cross over to support McAdams. It’s independent and moderate Republicans who make a difference in the district, which includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties.

And a “meaningful number” of those voters don’t like Trump, the political science professor said. “What do they do? Do they express their displeasure by voting for Ben McAdams and Joe Biden or do they pull the lever for Joe Biden but say, ‘Well I want to be sure we don’t get too carried away.’”

A negative campaign

The barrage of attack ads airing seemingly nonstop from both national Republican and Democratic groups as well as the campaigns, combined with the limits the coronavirus pandemic has put on voters and candidates, have made this race seem particularly harsh.

“I think the negativity of the campaign is probably the hallmark of the campaign this election cycle,” Karpowitz said, although the 2018 race between McAdams and Love was negative, too. “I haven’t done a study to know is this more negative than last time, but it’s very negative.”

The reason for all the negativity is simple, he said.

“Negative ads are done because they work. They drive up negative impressions of the opposition. They can move voters,” Karpowitz said, adding that they also “can cause people to remember their own partisan leanings and vote in that direction.”

But, he said, “they also can have a broader effect of turning people off to politics, especially when voters feel like they are inundated with just negativity. So they can cause voters to feel more cynical and less optimistic.”

That doesn’t mean they stay away from the ballot box, Karpowitz said, although “it makes it harder for whoever wins.”

Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown said neither candidate appears to be getting more of a benefit from the attack ads. Instead, he said, they’ve had the effect of wearing out voters and making them anxious for the costly race to be over.

“It may be a wash,” Brown said, noting during a recent gym visit he watched TV from the treadmill and “literally every single ad was either for Burgess Owens or for Ben McAdams or against one of them. Every single ad. At some point, it just becomes white noise and people stop paying attention.”

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant agreed.

“I know people who aren’t even watching TV anymore. They’re just done,” Merchant said, describing voters as able to tolerate only so much negativity. “There is a level of insanity about it and you do wonder how much is too much. ... I think that we have hit that point.”

Brown said Trump “for better or worse” is driving a big voter turnout. That helps Owens since the 4th District leans Republican, the GOP leader said, whether or not some of those Republicans cast what he termed a “protest” vote in the presidential race.

“We currently see a massive turnout compared to previous years,” Brown said in the days before the election. “Even for those people who may not be inclined to vote for the president, I still believe that they’ll vote Republican if they are Republicans” in other races including for Congress.

Merchant, however, said he believes there are many GOP voters who want to send McAdams back for another term, including among those who support Trump.

Even though Brown is predicting a victory for Owens, he cautioned it likely won’t come Tuesday. There may still be ballots in Utah’s largely by-mail election that won’t be counted that night because they have yet to be received by clerks. Ballots must be postmarked Monday, but can be counted after Election Day.

“People need to be mentally prepared to not have an answer to a lot of the big questions on election night,” he said, citing the presidential race as well as Utah’s 4th District. In 2018, it was two weeks before the race was called for McAdams and almost another week before Love gave her concession speech.

How to vote in Utah

In addition to Utah’s congressional races and picking a new governor, Beehive State voters will decide contests for attorney general, treasurer, auditor, school board, the Utah House and Utah Senate, seven constitutional amendments and county level offices.

For your vote to count, mail-in ballots must be postmarked no later than Monday or people can put ballots in designated drop boxes found throughout the state. In-person voting will occur on Tuesday, with polls open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mail-in ballots can also be dropped off at polling stations Tuesday.

More voting information can be found at voteinfo.utah.gov.