SALT LAKE CITY — Republican Burgess Owens’ victory in Tuesday’s 4th Congressional District primary hasn’t moved the needle on national assessments that Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, is more likely to win in November.
Both “The Cook Political Report,” based in Washington, D.C., and the University of Virginia’s “Sabato’s Crystal Ball” are keeping their “leans Democratic” rating for Utah’s 4th District seat after Owens beat state Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, former KSL Newsradio host Jay Mcfarland and nonprofit CEO Trent Christensen in the GOP primary.
“We believe McAdams has the advantage in the race,” “The Cook Political Report” House Editor David Wasserman told the Deseret News Thursday, cautioning that the first-term congressman may be “a clear favorite at this point but I wouldn’t say the race is over.”
What’s helping McAdams hold on to the seat he won by less than 700 votes from two-term Rep. Mia Love in 2018 is President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in the district that includes parts of Salt Lake and Utah counties, as well as state Senate Minority Whip Dan Hemmert’s decision to drop out of the race late last year, Wasserman said.
“The Republicans’ field disintegrated pretty early on in the race,” he said. With Hemmert, an Orem Republican, out, the candidate Wasserman felt was best-positioned to win was Christensen, who raised money for now-Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. But Christensen got in late and quickly stumbled, he said.
That left only “very conservative” candidates who hold limited appeal to suburban, business-minded Republicans, Wasserman said, “The Democratic formula to winning this seat has always been to drive a wedge between social conservatives and more moderates in the Salt Lake suburbs.”
Owens, a former NFL player and frequent Fox News guest, is described on his campaign website as an outspoken Black conservative and “a cultural counterweight to the hatred that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has spewed for the last few years,” by taking a knee to protest police brutality against minorities.
“We have to understand that’s what we’re up against as Americans, and we have to make sure our kids have a better future and more positive future with love for country, God and family — and we have to start fighting against this evil of socialism and Marxism,” Owens has said, calling Kaepernick an example of “our greatest enemy.”
But Wasserman suggested Owens may be too extreme for many 4th District voters, who had previously elected another Democrat, former Rep. Jim Matheson. Matheson beat Love in her first bid for the seat, in 2012, then retired from Congress two years later.
“Owens isn’t the type of Republican who normally succeeds in this seat,” he said. Love, who was the first Black Republican woman to serve in Congress, was viewed by voters “as something of a change agent in a way Owens might not be able to.”
Still, Wasserman said, Owens is attracting attention, as Black Lives Matter protests continue around the country in the wake of recent deaths of Black men in police custody. The movement lead to an apology by the National Football League commissioner for punishing players who did not stand during the national anthem at games.
“There’s no doubt the spotlight on race has elevated Burgess’ profile nationally,” Wasserman said, “He’s a Black former NFL player who’s been willing to criticize Colin Kaepernick on Fox News. That is attractive to base Republicans, but his rhetoric isn’t likely to connect with independents who make up the difference in this district.”
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of “Sabato’s Crystal Ball,” also noted Owens’ views may be outside of those held by most of the district’s voters.
“McAdams is probably closer to the center than Owens is,” Kondik said, or has at least positioned himself that way. “Faced with the choice between a pretty strong conservative Republican and maybe a little bit more of a middle-of-the-road Democrat, maybe that’s a way McAdams can win again even if the district is overall Republican.”
Like Wasserman, Kondik said how 4th District voters view the president will significantly impact the congressional race. Trump took Utah in 2016 with just over 45% of the vote, his lowest support in any of the states he won.
Trump endorsed Owens in a tweet Friday, congratulating him “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!”
While more than half of Utahns approved of the job Trump is doing in a late May Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, the president’s numbers were down from earlier in the year. Utah has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964.
While Kondik said he expects Trump to win Utah again this November, Wasserman said it’s “very possible” the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, could carry the 4th District, where Trump received just 39% of the vote in 2016.
Kondik said Trump’s standing in the state may give McAdams, viewed as one of the nation’s most vulnerable members of Congress because he represents one of the most Republican districts held by a Democrat, “the ability to sort of chart a middle-ground course” to be reelected.
Money may also be a deciding factor in the race, Kondik said. In the most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission, McAdams reported more than $2.2 million in cash on hand, compared to just over $111,000 for Owens.
“He needs more money. That’s a crucial thing,” Kondik said. “Challengers don’t have to out-raise incumbents to win, but I think he’s going to need more resources. He may have access to that. He’s someone who has appeared on national television recently, maybe someone who now that he’s the nominee can start raising more money.”
McAdams, he said, isn’t “some sort of huge favorite or anything, but I do like his position to start. Part of it is the money advantage. Part of it is because of the unique circumstances, maybe voters in this district are willing to split their tickets a little bit more.”
While neither ratings entity sees the race moving out of the “lean Democrat” category, Owens isn’t concerned.
“Burgess Owens grew up in the segregated South, protesting for his right to even go into a movie theater,” Owens’ spokesman, Jesse Ranney said. “He’s definitely not scared of being an underdog.”
McAdams does not appear to be underestimating his general election opponent.
“We’ve always known that this was going to be a tough race, but we’re confident Utahns appreciate Congressman McAdams listening to them and taking their independent views to a Washington that too often hasn’t listened,” McAdams’ campaign manager, Andrew Roberts, said.
“As voters learn that Mr. Owens wants to eliminate health care protections for hundreds of thousands with preexisting conditions, disband the Department of Education and privatize and cut Social Security and Medicare, we’re confident Utahns will also want to reject his divisive policies,” Roberts said.
Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said he expects the 4th District race to attract national attention even if it’s not seen as quite as competitive as it was two years ago, when Love held the advantage until the final weeks of the election.
“It’s incredibly hard to rank this district. It is the most competitive district we have had,” Perry said. “History has proven in this district that it’s not enough to be a Republican to win.”