SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Ben McAdams’ chances of reelection have improved since December, but Utah’s lone Democrat in Congress still ranked the nation’s 10th-most vulnerable House member, according to the latest analysis by Congressional Quarterly’s Roll Call.
The state’s 4th Congressional District race continues to be considered a toss-up by Roll Call, but McAdams has moved from fifth place in its December rankings. Other ratings outlets, including The Cook Political Report, have recently ranked the race as leaning Democratic.
“McAdams’ position has strengthened in recent months because of the GOP’s troubles with recruiting a candidate,” Roll Call reported this week, citing state Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert’s decision to drop out of the crowded race for the Republican nomination in the 4th District.
The only other GOP candidate mentioned by the Washington, D.C., publication is Trent Christensen, who’s on the June 30 primary ballot along with state Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan; former NFL player Burgess Owens and former KSL Newsradio host Jay Mcfarland.
Christensen, a regional finance director for Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid, is described as having “generated some buzz” but noted he only launched his campaign in March, weeks before party delegates narrowed the field at last month’s state GOP convention.
A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll in April found that more than two-thirds of those likely to vote in the 4th District primary didn’t have a preference among the seven Republicans in the running, while McAdams had the support of just over a third of voters, slightly more than said they’d back the eventual GOP nominee.
Roll Call said “Democrats say McAdams’ local popularity — he was Salt Lake County mayor before winning his seat in 2018 — outweighs the district’s GOP tilt. And Utah Republicans, who voted Romney into the Senate in spite of his criticism of the president, aren’t necessarily loyal Trump supporters.”
But the publication also pointed out the freshman congressman’s situation may shift, depending on how the primary develops. McAdams won the seat two years ago by less than 700 votes, defeating two-term Republican Rep. Mia Love, now a CNN contributor.
The Cook Report’s David Wasserman also came out with an updated analysis of the 4th District race Wednesday that maintains the “leans Democratic” rating, saying Christensen “hasn’t caught fire” and the primary looks likely to come down to between the other three candidates.
Wasserman, who said Democrats nationally have increased their advantage in November’s House elections, noted “most Utah politicos believe Coleman is too far right for the 4th (Congressional District) and that McAdams has smartly cultivated ties with the business community.”
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, suggested it’s too soon to say how tough the race will get.
“Because the Republicans have not yet chosen their nominee, it’s hard to know exactly how much to make of a slight change in the Roll Call ranking. Once there’s a head-to-head matchup for voters to consider, we’ll know more,” he said, noting part of the reason McAdams is doing better is that the GOP candidates aren’t well known.
The political science professor cautioned, however, “that doesn’t mean they won’t be competitive. Because of the nature of the district, it’s still likely to be a close race in the fall.” He said even though races like McAdams’ “seem to be trending in the Democrats’ direction,” that could change by November.
The coronavirus pandemic has halted traditional campaigning and hurt fundraising, adding to the difficulties for political challengers. McAdams, who reported more than $2.2 million on hand at the end of the March, is among the vulnerable Democrats that Roll Call noted have outraised the combined total of their GOP opponents.
COVID-19 may be impacting the race in another way.
Karpowitz said “we’re likely to be in a challenging economic and public health situation for several months to come, and that’s likely to hurt President Trump’s reelection prospects. His popularity or lack of popularity could also have down-ballot effects, including in races like the 4th District.”
McAdams’ campaign manager, Andrew Roberts, had little to say about the ranking.
“Congressman McAdams is focused on working with Republicans and Democrats to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, including his push for a list of every business to receive a loan from the government to make sure every taxpayer dollar is accounted for and that Utah businesses receive their fair share,” Roberts said.
He said that for McAdams, who does not face a primary after easily defeating a challenge from a more liberal candidate at the Democratic state convention last month, the November “election is still a ways off and the best way Ben can earn another term is to continue to be an independent voice who does right by Utah in D.C.”
The Republicans in the race expect it to heat up, especially as restrictions intended to stop the spread of COVID-19 are eased.
Christensen said he appreciated being the only GOP candidate mentioned by Roll Call, which has previously reported on his launch video initially featuring aging members of Congress hooked up to IVs and being wheeled by in chairs and beds, just before several congressmen, including McAdams, tested positive for COVID-19.
“I don’t think that they think that there isn’t a candidate who can beat Ben. The fact that he’s still in the top 10 means something,” Christensen said. “I think if Republican voters pick the right candidate on June 30 to beat Ben McAdams, the money will be there. I think every advantage that Ben has vanishes if I’m the nominee.”
He said people are ready to get back to work and ready to engage in politics, including contributing money. While Christensen declined to say how much money he’s been able to raise, he said “we’re going to be very competitive. Let’s just leave it at that.”
Through March, Christensen reported nearly $86,000, including about $64,000 he loaned to his campaign, and had spent all but about $4,400. He said he’s already tapping into the network he used to raise millions of dollars for Romney’s presidential campaign but has not sought a primary endorsement from Utah’s junior senator.
Mcfarland, who like Christensen and Owens gathered voter signatures to guarantee a place on the primary ballot, said he believes McAdams “is definitely at risk” in the November election. He said news coverage of the race has taken a back seat to the coronavirus, something that has “really handicapped” all of the campaigns.
“I think people underestimate the field. I think they underestimate me and my relationship with Utahns across District 4,” Mcfarland said. He said his internal polling shows “strong support, not just in the conservative base, but we draw very strongly from the middle and we even draw from the left.”
That gives him a better chance to take back the seat, he said, and demonstrates McAdams’ vulnerability.
“It’s a center-right district. It’s not a center-left district,” Mcfarland said, adding voters there “deserve a more moderate candidate. I do think it would be a mistake for Republicans to send an extreme right candidate to try and beat Ben McAdams.”
Asked about the ranking change for McAdams, Coleman said in a statement: “The only list that matters is the list of Republican voters in (the 4th Congressional District), and we have it. It is longer than that other list. CD4 is a solid Republican district and will reject Ben’s voting record of support for whatever terrible policy Nancy Pelosi dictates.”
She said, “Republican voters will make their displeasure known come November.”
Owens’ spokesman, Jesse Ranney, said the “race will be one of the most talked about in the country this year. Dynamics in the race will inevitably shift with continued coverage. As the state opens up, more voters will get to know Burgess Owens. I’m confident the more voters get to know Burgess, the more excited they’ll be at the prospect of him serving us in Congress.”