Will there be a post-convention bounce for GOP congressional candidate Burgess Owens?
Challenger to 4th District Rep. Ben McAdams spoke at last week’s Republican National Convention
SALT LAKE CITY — Even though Utah 4th Congressional District candidate Burgess Owens spoke during last week’s mostly virtual Republican National Convention, it’s not clear how much of an impact his brief appearance is having on his bid to unseat the state’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams.
Owens recently told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards that he’s received “good feedback” about his 3 1/2-minute prerecorded, largely biographical speech that honored his great-great-grandfather who came to America on a slave ship while also taking aim at Democrats and praising President Donald Trump.
“I was happy to do it. To me it was a very, very positive convention and I’m just glad to be part of it, to say the least,” said Owens, a former NFL player and frequent Fox News guest, joking he was glad he didn’t realize how many people would be tuning in.
But while some post-convention polling shows Trump slightly diminished Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden’s lead in the presidential race, Owens’ biggest gain from the speaking slot could end up being increased fundraising for his campaign.
“He was really playing to that national stage, the people he’s going to need to help fund his campaign.” said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “The people who are watching are the national people, the people who will bring money to a race like this. The 4th District is highly competitive.”
The Utah voters who tuned in to the four nights of GOP convention coverage likely already are supporting Owens, Perry said. “He’s trying to get some of that funding from outside groups as well that are looking at this district and maybe think there’s an opportunity for Burgess to win. That’s a primary target for him.”
Owens, the winner of a four-way June 30 Republican primary, lagged far behind McAdams in fundraising in the most recent Federal Election Commission filings, reporting less than $93,000 in cash on hand compared to more than $2.6 million for McAdams, who chose not to participate in the Democratic National Convention.
Since then, Owens has had help raising money from Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and other prominent members of his party. The race, seen as leaning Democratic by some national analysts, has been shifted to a toss up by the Cook Report, a Washington D.C.-based online newsletter.
David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Report, told the Deseret News Owens could expect “maybe a fundraising bounce” from his convention speech. But Wasserman also pointed out that “few swing voters were watching the conventions.”
For now, McAdams still has the edge in the race, according to J. Miles Coleman, a political analyst for the University of Virginia’s “Sabato’s Crystal Ball.” Coleman said any momentum Owens got from the speech could be blunted, in part by former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin’s recent endorsement of Biden.
McMullin, who ran as conservative alternative to Trump in 2016, had his best showing in Utah, with more than 21% of the vote to 27.5% for Democrat Hillary Clinton and 45.5% for Trump. In the 4th District, McMullin helped keep Trump under 40%, his lowest margin of victory in any of the nation’s congressional districts, Coleman said.
“I think there are probably a disproportionate amount of soft Republicans in that area,” he said, who may see McMullin’s call to support Biden in November as “a green light.” Coleman said “if McMullin can give cover with enough soft Republicans to vote Democratic, I can definitely see McAdams benefiting.”
However, Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said McMullin’s influence in the 4th District, which includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties, has probably diminished in the past four years.
Karpowitz said it’s hard to know how much impact Owens’ speech will have on the race.
“From one perspective, any publicity is good publicity in a congressional election,” Karpowitz said. “Especially for a challenger, just getting voters to notice and to recognize who you are is an important and not small challenge. Having a speech at a national political convention is a good thing just in terms of being on people’s radar.”
Still, the BYU political science professor said there’s “some danger” for a 4th District candidate to be seen as too closely aligned with the president. Former two-term Utah Rep. Mia Love, who lost to McAdams in 2018 by less than 700 votes, chose not to accept help from Trump, who later mocked her reluctance at a news conference.
“I think Burgess Owens is much more willing to embrace the party of Donald Trump than Mia Love was and that probably helps with the most committed Republicans, those most likely to be watching the convention,” Karpowitz said, adding it remains to be seen how large the group of voters is that would be turned off by the association.
Owens’ campaign spokesman, Jesse Ranney, said in a convention speech, “a lot of times, you’re preaching to the choir,” although others will hear about it through social media. He said it was “definitely a good opportunity for him to get up and share what he felt was important, and what he wanted people to know about him.”
While a post-convention bump is “hard to quantify,” Ranney said there has been an uptick in the number of people contacting the campaign to share their own stories because Owens’ talk of growing up Black in the segregated South “struck a chord.”
McAdams launched a new TV ad Monday featuring a Republican voter critical of Owens’ saying he would “absolutely” support Trump’s efforts to resume nuclear weapons testing. Owens has since backed off that statement, saying he opposes such testing and suggesting he didn’t fully understand what was being proposed.
His spokesman, Ranney, responded to the TV commercial, saying, “The health and safety of our country is not a partisan issue. It’s a shame Ben McAdams is making it one. Burgess would never allow nuclear testing in Utah. Ben knows that but there’s nothing he enjoys more than misleading voters.”
McAdams’ campaign had little to say about what effect Owens’ speech would have.
“Utahns have bigger topics on their minds than national party speaking engagements. Congressman McAdams is focused on critical health and safety issues, such as stopping his opponent and the Trump administration from restarting dangerous explosive nuclear weapons tests,” McAdams campaign manager, Andrew Roberts, said.