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4th District candidate appeared on program linked to far-right conspiracy theory

But spokesman for Burgess Owens says candidate doesn’t support ‘QAnon’ beliefs

Republican Burgess Owens, a former NFL player, left, and Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, who are running for McAdams’ seat in the 4th Congressional District.
Republican Burgess Owens, a former NFL player, left, and Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, who are running for McAdams’ seat in the 4th Congressional District.
Kristin Murphy and Colter Peterson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Burgess Owens, the Republican candidate taking on incumbent Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams in Utah’s 4th Congressional District, is being tied to a group of far-right conspiracy theorists after reports surfaced he promoted his campaign on a “QAnon” program.

Owens’ appearance on “The Common Sense Show” that’s part of the Patriots’ Soapbox news network, a YouTube channel, about a month before he won the party’s June 30 primary was featured in a story posted Thursday by Media Matters for America, a left-leaning nonprofit.

The lengthy interview did not deal with QAnon beliefs that President Donald Trump is at odds with a child sex ring involving powerful people embedded in the deep state, a baseless conspiracy supposedly being exposed by the anonymous “Q” through social media posts.

But Owens, who recently tweeted “Colorado chose wisely” to a congressional primary winner in that state, Lauren Boebert, who has said she hopes QAnon “is real,” made a point of telling the talk show hosts, “thank you for all you guys are doing because I’m just part of the team,” at the end of the interview.

Owens’ campaign spokesman, Jesse Ranney, suggested the former NFL player and frequent guest on Fox News wasn’t aware of the conspiracy theory that started online several years ago and has since surfaced on signs and T-shirts at Trump’s rallies.

“Burgess is slammed meeting with Tim Ballard and (Operation Underground Railroad) to discuss how the federal government can end the trafficking of 2 million children each year. He’s meeting with Polynesian business owners to discuss what needs to be done to bring economic prosperity to an overlooked demographic,” Ranney said.

“He’s speaking with the Fraternal Order of Police to discuss how we can increase community relations with our law enforcement. I’m sure tonight after he’s finished working on the issues that matter to Utah, he’ll have time to Google what ‘QAnon’ is,” he said Thursday.

On Friday, Ranney answered “No,” when asked if Owens supported QAnon theories.

“Burgess has literally done hundreds of interviews with dozens of outlets. He’d never even heard of Patriots Soapbox/‘Common Sense Show’ or whatever conspiracy theory they’d talked about in other interviews,” the spokesman said.

The Utah Democratic Party put out a news release Friday linking to a UtahPolicy.com story about Owens’ appearance, describing it as “topping off a bad week filled with headlines about his embrace of nuclear testing and poor fundraising” and describing QAnon as a “dangerous” conspiracy theory.

“Obviously, we’ve seen time and time again Republicans play to the extreme and then try to moderate themselves to maximize their appeal among most Utahns,” Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant said. “The reality is, is that I think this is the kind of person that he is. He’s a longtime right-wing commentator on Fox News.”

Merchant said it’s not clear, however, that Owens knew he was appearing on a QAnon program. Earlier in the week, Owens’ campaign said he hadn’t understood he was being asked about Trump’s talk of resuming nuclear weapons testing when he said recently that he “absolutely” supported the president’s position.

“At the end of the day, you tell me, do you want to have somebody that doesn’t have any idea what they’re doing taking votes on things?” Merchant asked, quickly adding, “I’m certainly not going to say that Burgess Owens, at some point, is not going to be able to get caught up on the issues.”

But the Democratic Party leader said the issue “opens up a door” in the race, expected to be close after McAdams won the seat from two-term Republican Rep. Mia Love by less than 700 votes in 2018. He is seen as one of the nation’s most vulnerable members of Congress running for reelection.

Voters “want to see regular, normal people representing them in Congress,” Merchant said, not extremists. He said McAdams is “an independent thinker” who has angered as many Democrats as he has Republicans by some of his votes in Congress.

“Burgess Owens is not the mainstream candidate that Utah is looking for,” Merchant said.

McAdams’ campaign manager, Andrew Roberts, said in a statement, “Mr. Owens’ ideas are worrisome and frankly not in step with Utah. Congressman McAdams is focused on health care, jobs and economic recovery, not conspiracy theories.”

Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown declined to comment Friday on Owens being linked to QAnon, or on whether the party’s nominee in what will be the state’s most competitive race in November needs to start avoiding extreme issues to appeal to voters.

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Owens is not helping himself with independent and moderate Republicans who are likely to swing the outcome of the general election in the 4th District, which includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties.

“Are these rookie mistakes or are they more serious attempts to flirt with extremists? That is the question that his comments and interviews are raising,” Karpowitz said, calling it “electorally dangerous to dabble in these sorts of extreme views. It makes it frankly very easy for his opponent, who has worked very hard to portray himself as moderate, to paint Owens as extreme.”

Still, Owens has a compelling story to tell voters as a Black man raised in the segregated South who becomes a conservative, Karpowitz said. But the political science professor said Owens will have to set aside what he learned as a right-wing pundit on a cable network where controversy is encouraged.

“He has talents and virtues that could be really valuable as a candidate, but right now, the debate is about how extreme he is and that is not a good place for a candidate in the 4th District to be,” Karpowitz said, especially since most voters don’t know much else about him yet.

A first-time candidate, Owens defeated three Republicans in the party’s primary, state Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan; former KSL Newsradio host Jay Mcfarland; and nonprofit CEO Trent Christensen. The GOP scrambled to find a contender after state Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, dropped out of the race last December.

Owens has been endorsed by Trump, who tweeted his congratulations “on your impressive primary victory! A Super Bowl Champion, Burgess knows how to WIN. Strong on Life, Military, Vets and the #2A, he will always fight for Utah. Burgess has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

He lags far behind McAdams in fundraising, reporting having just under $91,000 in cash on hand as of June 30, compared to the incumbent’s more than $2.6 million in available campaign funds. Now that the primary is behind him, Owens is expected to start seeing his contributions climb.

Both Republican and Democratic groups targeted the seat as a must-win in November. National congressional analysts, however, have given McAdams the edge, rating the race as leaning Democratic, even though Republicans hold an advantage in terms of numbers.