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Utah’s hotly contested 4th Congressional District race ‘frozen’ by pandemic

State’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, had been seen as one of nation’s most vulnerable candidates

Rep. Ben McAdams tweeted out a video message on Twitter this weekend after he was released from the hospital following a battle with the new coronavirus.
Rep. Ben McAdams tweeted out a video message on Twitter this weekend after he was released from the hospital following a battle with the new coronavirus.
twitter.com/BenMcAdams

SALT LAKE CITY — What was anticipated to be one of the nation’s highest-profile House races — the Republican effort to unseat Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams — has stayed largely under the radar even as GOP delegates prepare to winnow a crowded field later this month for the primary election.

“In some sense, it’s a casualty of the coronavirus challenges,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. “I think it’s very hard for challengers to get the attention of the public at this point.”

Adding to the difficulties for the seven Republicans in this race, the political science professor said, is that McAdams was hospitalized for more than a week after becoming the second member of Congress to test positive for COVID-19. The freshman congressman is now recovering at home.

“It’s hard to campaign aggressively when the incumbent is in the hospital and struggling with the very virus that everyone is concerned about,” Karpowitz said. “None of those are overtly political observations. It’s just the state of things right now.”

Even before the new coronavirus hit the nation hard, the race was already looking up for McAdams, despite his being dubbed the most vulnerable Democrat in Congress in this year’s elections after beating the GOP incumbent, former Rep. Mia Love, by less than 700 votes in 2018.

National rating outlets are giving McAdams the edge, including the University of Virginia’s “Saboto’s Crystal Ball” declaring in early February that Utah’s 4th Congressional District seat was leaning Democratic.

And in late March, The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman shifted the seat from a toss-up to leaning Democratic as part of a national trend resulting from the limitations the coronavirus pandemic has put on campaigning.

A top GOP contender, state Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, dropped out of the race in December, citing concerns about how campaigning was affecting his business. Hemmert had been recognized as among the country’s most competitive GOP candidates by the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The Republicans still in the race are state Rep. Kim Coleman; Trent Christensen, a former Zions Bank vice president; former NFL player Burgess Owens; former Utah GOP communications adviser Kathleen Anderson; nurse practitioner Chris Biesinger; former KSL Newsradio host Jay Mcfarland and businesswoman Cindy Thompson.

McAdams, a former Salt Lake County mayor, also faces a contender from the left for the Democratic Party nomination from Daniel Beckstrand.

Depending on what delegates decide in the upcoming April 25 virtual state party conventions for both Republicans and Democrats, there could be as many as five Republicans and two Democrats on the primary ballots, since Christensen and Owens have qualified for the GOP ballot by gathering voter signatures and Mcfarland is close to reaching the threshold.

The primary election is scheduled for June 30. Lawmakers talked briefly about moving the date to Aug. 4 in an upcoming special legislative session, but that’s not likely to happen, although other changes may be made to make the election safer.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Saboto’s Crystal Ball based in Washington, D.C., told the Deseret News the race “could very well be very, very competitive. It’s certainly a district that on paper you’d expect the Republicans to hold, and yet I don’t think that national Republicans have necessarily gotten the candidates they wanted.”

He said Utah’s 4th Congressional District, which includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties, “is one of the more interesting and unusual districts” held by a Democrat because it’s more Republican than President Donald Trump’s 7-point victory there in 2016 suggests but possibly lacking a strong GOP candidate in the race.

“McAdams stood out as someone who barely won in 2018. It seemed like he would be at the top of the list for Republicans as they try to win the House back. I would imagine they will still go after McAdams pretty strongly. It may be that one of these other candidates ultimately becomes a good challenger,” Kondik said.

Still, he said, that “seems a little uncertain. I think that McAdams has some personal popularity and personal reputations for himself. I think that things have developed in a positive way for McAdams, but I also don’t think he’s out of the woods yet.”

The Cook Political Report recently posted COVID-19 has “all but frozen the House recruitment process in place and curtailed fundraising, benefiting incumbents and candidates who had already built large war chests and disadvantaging recent entrants. On the whole, that boosts Democrats, the party on defense this cycle.”

McAdams is one of four freshman Democrats now more likely to get reelected, according to Wasserman’s analysis for the nonpartisan group based in Washington-D.C.

The Cook Political Report stated McAdams “may be in better shape for reelection than ever: even before the wave of sympathetic news coverage of the incumbent, the GOP field was a mess,” with Republican candidates far behind the incumbent in fundraising.

Wasserman said in his analysis that Christensen, regional finance director for now-Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, was seen by some GOP strategists as “their new savior” when he got in the race right before the March 19 filing deadline.

But Christensen “stumbled,” Wasserman said, by releasing a campaign announcement video that has since been edited calling for term limits by showing aging members of Congress hooked up to IVs, with some being wheeled in by chairs and beds, just before McAdams and Florida GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, tested positive for COVID-19.

Karpowitz also expressed surprise the race hadn’t attracted more prominent Republican challengers.

“I’m not surprised people are not paying attention. But it is the moment for Republicans to pay attention,” he said. “It is striking that despite the fact this is going to be a close race, we haven’t had more people with strong name recognition enter.”

McAdams has carefully positioned himself as a centrist in the Democrat-controlled House, Karpowitz said. This allows him to appeal to the independent and moderate Republican swing voters in the 4th District, an image reinforced by an intraparty challenge from a progressive Democrat.

Even McAdams’ most controversial vote in Congress, in favor of impeaching Trump over using his office to pressure a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent, is mitigated by Romney being the only Republican in the Senate who voted to remove the president, Karpowitz said.

How much of an issue impeachment still is remains to be seen, Karpowitz said.

“What once seemed like an election about impeachment and maybe even about socialism is now an election that’s going to be about the government response about coronavirus and the state of the economy,” he said.

McAdams, whose recent bout with COVID-19 received national attention, has not been talking about the election.

“The congressman knows firsthand what we’re facing when it comes to this virus. His focus is on working with Utah’s elected officials and the Trump administration to navigate this pandemic together; not his political campaign,” McAdams’ campaign manager, Andrew Roberts, said in a statement.

Love, who held the 4th Congressional District seat for two terms before losing to McAdams, toyed with getting in the race herself. Now a CNN commentator, she said because of the outbreak, “things have clearly just frozen in this race.”

She said that makes electing a Republican to the seat in November that much more difficult.

The situation “fortunately — or unfortunately in some cases — benefits the incumbent. I think that the longer this goes on, the harder it’s going to be, especially in the 4th District, for a challenger with limited resources, name ID and time to mount a charge, mount a campaign. That’s just the reality of it,” Love said.

Candidates have to recognize that Utahns just aren’t paying attention, she said, at least for now.

“You’ve got people that are losing jobs left and right. Politics is literally the last thing on their minds. They just want to know how it’s going to get fixed,” Love said. Candidates trying to talk politics at this point are “really not in tune with the fears that are going on right now. I think the best thing they can do is just reassure people.”

She has not endorsed in the race, but said she likes what she’s seeing from Coleman, noting the West Jordan Republican is “committed and working hard.”

Asked about the impact of the virus and the latest rating change in the race by The Cook Political Report, Coleman said in a statement: “It’s a challenging environment, but it’s challenging for everyone. There’s no drop-off in enthusiasm on our end. We feel good about the race.”

Coleman was described in Wasserman’s analysis as being viewed by some unnamed GOP insiders as “too far right to appeal districtwide.”

She said of the analysis of the race that “Cook is engaging in some guesswork. This is a Republican district, pure and simple. With President Trump at the top of the ballot, we will have a GOP sweep in Utah and the 4th” Congressional District.

Christensen said even though getting in the race later then nearly all of the other candidates “put me a little bit behind the eight ball,” he’s pleased with his progress. He said he’s already raised some $80,000 and feels “really good about that. That’s heading right into, smack right into the coronavirus, the earthquake and all of that.”

Candidates have until mid-April to file their first-quarter financial disclosure reports with the Federal Election Commission. As of the most recent federal filing, McAdams had nearly $1.8 million in cash on hand at the end of 2019.

Anderson said she has ceased all fundraising efforts because of the pandemic.

“For me, it’s important to recognize that things have changed. I think if you don’t reevaluate your campaign in light of those changes, you’re likely to misstep. I think you have to be very sensitive to what’s going on,” the former adviser to the Utah Republican Party during her husband, Rob Anderson’s, tenure as state party chairman.

She said she thinks voters around the country will rally behind Trump because of their concerns about the economic impact of the crisis and give him a GOP majority in the House as well as the Senate, but cautioned it shouldn’t be viewed “from a political standpoint. I believe we’re all on Team America.”

Owens also raised the need to be aware of what Utahns are going through.

“Everybody’s world is turned upside-down now. So even though we still want to make sure that we have to compete, we also have to be sensitive to the fact there’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said, adding “we have to recognize what people’s basic concerns are.”

Right now, he acknowledged, that’s not who wins the 4th District race.

“My focus is very simply that we need to get the House back,” Owens said. “But at the same time, when people are concerned about their own homes, it’s a very difficult stretch to make that happen.”

Mcfarland said his campaign “has been hunkered down, trying to decide what a campaign in a COVID-19 environment should look like. There are no easy answers in this situation so honestly, we still aren’t sure exactly what we will be doing to mount a campaign that best gets our message to the people.”

He said the campaign’s “best hope right now is that there can be a return to normalcy sooner than later so we can return to traditional campaigning methods.”

Thompson, who’s semiretired, said she’s also still working on finding the best way for breaking through to delegates and voters, who are distracted because “there is a lot going on in the world right now. ... I don’t know how you do it.”

But Biesinger said he still believes voters are just as interested in turning out the Democratic incumbent.

“I think I could trust our population that hasn’t changed it at all. It’s still politics and who represents the people,” he said, adding they are “still very much involved in this. Just because we have to maintain a 6-foot radius and social distancing doesn’t make the race for the 4th Congressional District any less important.”