SALT LAKE CITY — Primary voters are choosing the Republican candidate in what’s likely to be Utah’s most competitive general election race in November, for the 4th District seat now held by the state’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams.
The four GOP contenders — state Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan; former NFL player Burgess Owens; former KSL Newsradio host Jay Mcfarland; and nonprofit CEO Trent Christensen — all say they’re ready to take on the incumbent, labeled one of the nation’s most vulnerable members of the Congress running for reelection.
A former Salt Lake County mayor, McAdams won the seat in 2018 by less than 700 votes, beating two-term Republican congresswoman and now CNN contributor Mia Love. His bid for reelection has already been targeted by national Republican and Democratic groups battling for control of the U.S. House.
But the June 30 GOP primary in the state’s newest congressional district hasn’t attracted as much attention as expected, in part because there’s also a hotly contested race for the Republican nomination for governor underway in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing protests over the treatment of blacks by police.
“A lot of people have been more worried about things closer to home,” said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, and what time they make for politics is largely for a race that may end up being decided in the primary, given that Utah hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in 40 years.
“Historically, the Republican nominee for governor is likely to be the next governor for the state of Utah. There’s still a race to be had there without question, but that is the tradition,” Perry said, so voters aren’t likely to shift their focus to the 4th District race until after the primary.
None of the congressional contenders “has been a clear standout so far, but the Republican Party will get behind their candidate and this will be a competitive race through November,” he said. “People on both sides of the aisle might not have been paying a lot of attention to the 4th Congressional District now, but they’re going to want to,”
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, also said the congressional race has been “overshadowed a little bit” by events as well as the governor’s race. Making it even more difficult for the candidates, he said, is that they’re not familiar names to many voters.
“In this sort of of an environment, it’s just really tough,” Karpowitz said. “Better-known candidates, who likely would have immediately been, if not very close, perhaps even favored in the general election, did not run. So it’s left to relative newcomers to congressional politics at least.”
The primary “is almost anybody’s to win,” Karpowitz said, adding that the race is likely to heat up in the general election.
“I do think the candidates are intriguing for different reasons. But they’ve struggled to catch the attention and, in one sense, the imagination of the voters at this point,” Karpowitz said. “Whoever emerges, because of the nature of the district, is going to have a shot.”
Regardless of who wins the GOP primary, McAdams expects to win in November.
“Voters want a congressional representative who understands that this district belongs to Utah, not a political party. Utahns appreciate Congressman McAdams’ independent voice in Washington,” said his campaign manager, Andrew Roberts. “We believe that no matter the opponent, voters will elect Ben to serve a second term.”
An April Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that voters in the 4th District, which includes parts of Salt Lake and Utah counties, were split over reelecting McAdams but more than two-thirds were undecided about which of the then-seven Republicans in the race they supported.
Later that month, state Republican Party convention delegates advanced Coleman and Owens to the primary ballot and eliminated three candidates, former Utah GOP communications adviser Kathleen Anderson, nurse practitioner Chris Biesinger; and businesswoman Cindy Thompson.
Owens, along with Mcfarland and Christensen, had already qualified for the primary ballot by gathering voter signatures. The four contenders for the GOP nomination all see themselves as the strongest candidate against McAdams, for different reasons.
“We feel very good about everything, top to bottom. What we believe in, our values, our message is resonating with the voters. A lot of that is evidenced in our ground support that we have, just so many people,” Coleman said. “Momentum is clearly behind us.”
Among the most-asked questions by voters, Coleman said, is whether she can beat McAdams in November.
Her answer? “Oh, absolutely, absolutely we can. We’re the best candidate to beat Ben,” she said, citing her campaign’s resources, including raising more than $500,000 so far. “We’ve been running against Ben for over a year. We do have a primary to get through but our target’s always been the November election.”
What also sets her apart from the other Republicans on the ballot, Coleman said, is her “solid record” on conservative issues as a state representative since 2014. “I’m not just what I say on a campaign trail. I’ve done it. I have defended those principles of platform values.”
McAdams also has a record now in Congress, supporting issues she said 4th District voters disagree with, “everything from impeaching the president to HR1,” a 2019 voters rights, campaign finance and ethics reform bill passed by the House that would have set new federal requirements for elections.
Endorsed by Love, the last Republican to hold the seat, Coleman said voters see her as a “strong, platform Republican” who shares their concerns about “fundamental constitutional issues,” including the ability to “speak freely. Will they be targeted if they post a flag in their yard? This is not our America.”
She said she’s hearing from voters about what is apparently a reference to reports earlier this month of several American flags outside homes in a Sacramento suburb being set ablaze.
“I support peaceful protests all day long. I have been a sponsor of free speech legislation, to ensure free speech, even speech that I disagree with. That’s so fundamental to this country,” Coleman said. “But people want to feel their constitutional rights are protected.”
COVID-19 has also presented challenges to those rights, she said, especially what she described as “very shocking to a lot of people,” a Salt Lake County Health Department hotline taking reports of failures to follow social distancing and other guidelines put in place to stop the spread of the virus.
There have been “double standards” applied to enforcing those guidelines in Utah and other parts of the country, Coleman said, noting “it’s not OK for a business revival rally but it’s OK for protests.” She said she cares about the health and safety of Utahns, but “we always want to be careful that we don’t do more damage in our response.”
As the state continues to reopen, Coleman said Utahns need to be vigilant that government doesn’t go too far.
“I think early on we responded to trying to control a disease,” she said. “We just need to make sure moving forward we’re not just merely trying to control the people.”
Owens said a year ago he never saw himself becoming a politician but now feels “extremely blessed” to be running in a congressional district “that literally will be the linchpin of our country. The way we go, the values that we have here, will literally take our country in the direction that we decide.”
Seen as a must-win congressional district by both major parties, Owens said 4th District voters will choose whether to keep Democrats in power or allow Republicans “to get our country back” from what he describes as “enemy” Marxist and socialist-driven policies.
The district’s voters like what he has to say, Owens said.
“I couldn’t have picked a better place to deliver the message. This district gets it, No. 1,” he said. “They’re excited about having somebody with boldness, who will speak to who we are and not apologize. I would never, ever apologize for what I stand for.”
McAdams “is a good guy but he represents a party that has done tremendous damage,” Owens said. “They’ve done nothing but divide us. Everything they say is about division. It’s black and white. It’s rich and poor. It’s whatever they can do to divide us.”
Growing up black in the segregated South, the former football player for the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders, author and frequent guest on Fox News said he “truly learned the values that make this country work. I love our country, our god. I learned to respect authority, respect women. Education was everything.”
Utahns share those same values, he said. “It couldn’t be any better for me. It’s like coming home. It’s like being home again. So it’s easy for me to speak very strongly, very passionately about what we stand for because this is what I grew up in and I don’t want to see Utah lose what my community lost over the decades.”
Owens said the left is to blame for policies that “takes away education; takes away your opportunity to have faith and worship; takes away any idea of industry because they want you to be dependent on something else, government. You take away and destroy the family unit, you will sink the middle class in a heartbeat.”
But he said he’s optimistic that Americans are waking up to “realize that something is happening to us. They realize that there’s been evil sitting at our door at all times. We’re going to come together this time. I believe this with all my heart.”
He said having faith in the public to make the right choices is also the way to get the economy going again after it was shut down to stop the spread of COVID-19. Businesses, he said, will do what’s best for their customers and don’t need to be told by government when and how to reopen.
“Leave it up to ‘we the people’,” Owens said. “These bureaucrats who have never done a business in their life, that have gotten everything wrong so far, keep them out.”
Mcfarland has stood apart from the other Republicans running on his response to COVID-19 restrictions, particularly in his willingness to wear a face mask, something the other candidates say they won’t do unless pressed by a business.
That surprised the longtime host of the “JayMac News Show” on KSL Newsradio, since even many Republicans, including Gov. Gary Herbert, “believe that wearing a mask is a respectful thing to do and my opponents were worried about civil liberties when really this has been a request from the government.”
He continues to campaign from his home even though smaller gatherings are now permitted, “wishing I could be out in large crowds and spreading the word but instead, I spend my days making phone calls to anyone who will listen,” Mcfarland said
The reason is that he’s concerned about coronavirus cases increasing, he said. “With Utah spiking again with COVID-19, I don’t want to get it and I certainly don’t want to spread it to anybody else. So I think that Utah is risking a second wave and I don’t want to be part of that,” because it means slowing the state’s economic recovery.
How primary voters are responding to Mcfarland’s positions on the precautions needed in the face of the deadly virus has been “hard to gauge,” he said, although what he’s “hearing is people are grateful for a reasonable response to a very difficult situation.”
So far, Mcfarland said he hasn’t “personally seen any backlash on asking people to wear a mask. I just feel like I’m asking them to do the right thing.” The message is part of a larger theme in his campaign, the need for a candidate who can work across the aisle in a House that could still be controlled by Democrats after November.
His competitors, Mcfarland said, are all assuming the GOP will take back the House and keep control of the Senate and the White House, something he sees as a “remote” possibility at best.
“Everything they want to do is based upon having a majority and forcing their viewpoint on the other side,” he said. If that doesn’t happen, they “will be highly ineffective because they’re spending their campaign time bashing or attacking the other side, then they’re going to be put in a place where they have to work with them somehow.”
His approach, Mcfarland said, makes him a tougher candidate against McAdams because he can draw support from independent and moderate voters. Several members of his campaign staff are liberals who backed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential race.
“I’m able to present conservative ideals in a way that they’ve never thought of before and that, to me, makes me a very strong asset to the Republican Party. I believe that I can grow the conservative base,” he said, at a time people “are looking for civility again in our government. They’re looking for a return to being able to talk to each other.”
Christensen, one of the last Republicans to get in the race, said there’s a single word that separates him from the other candidates — substance.
“A lot of people have said, well, this will be a name ID election and I’m sure that will play a huge part in it. But the June 1 (Utah Debate Commission) debate was a turning point, I think, in this race,” he said, where voters were able to hear him “really speak to the issues substantively.”
The CEO and president of VentureCapital.org, which trains entrepreneurs how to raise funds, and a former Zions Bank vice president, Christensen said that ability comes from his business background.
“If you haven’t lived in the private sector, haven’t dealt with the economy for 10 years, you can’t make change. You can’t even articulately talk about it,” he said. For him, there’s only one issue in the race, “jobs, jobs and jobs. It’s reopen this economy and get people their jobs back.”
The spike in COVID-19 cases in Utah and other states easing restrictions is “a bump” that’s to be expected, Christensen said, but with only a small percentage of the deaths occurring in people under 60, businesses and schools should be open.
“Don’t hold the economy hostage. That’s what’s really resonating with people,” he said.
He has called for Congress to limit the distribution of any future coronavirus relief funding to only those states that have completely reopened by a set deadline to “get the engine running again ... because that’s where people don’t have hope,” of making an economic recovery.
“The economy is kind of boring a little bit, right? Taxation and spending and regulation. But it really comes down to hope. What I’m selling is hope. Listen, it doesn’t have to be this way. We can get back to where we were booming,” Christensen said. “But if you don’t have the mechanics of how you go from A to B, all you’re really selling is fluff.”
That’s not going to cut it in November, he said, because “you’re not going to beat Ben with this message of, ‘Well, there’s just this bunch of socialists and Marxists back there and we need to go and defeat them.’ ... All that says to me is you really don’t know how Congress works. You don’t know how to get things done.”
Voters, especially those who crossed party lines in 2018 to vote for McAdams, feel “betrayed” by some of his votes, Christensen said, suggesting the race may come down to “how much the party, the Democratic Party, is willing to put into this race to help keep that seat. Because they need it to keep the House.”
A former regional finance director for now-Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, he said his fundraising ability would be a big plus in a general election expected to cost an estimated $4 million and $5 million. Asked about how much he’s raised lately, Christensen said only that “we’re happy with where it’s at.”