Rep. John Curtis responded to an attack in the final moments of an otherwise mostly civil debate as Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs accused him of benefiting from his position through stock trades. The last minute shot marked the beginning of the final two-week sprint before the June 25 Republican primary election to replace Sen. Mitt Romney.

Staggs levied the accusation against Curtis, who represents Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, in the last seconds of his concluding statement, which came at the very end of a debate hosted by the Utah Debate Commission Monday evening.

“This is the problem with Congress,” Staggs said in his closing remarks.

Curtis then paused the debate moderator — former ABC4 News chief political correspondent Glen Mills — who was wrapping up the event, to respond to Staggs’ personal attack. Curtis said Staggs had waited until he would not have time to respond to insert his accusation of what Curtis called “insider trading.”

“You’ve accused me of a felony here tonight. You better have very good evidence. And I’d like to challenge you to produce that evidence,” Curtis said looking directly at Staggs. “If that’s how you’re going to work in the Senate, the people of Utah will be very disappointed.”

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Curtis continued to push back against Staggs’ debate tactic during a post-debate press conference, even as Staggs doubled down on his claim and joined former Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson in attacking Curtis for his campaign contributions from national political action committees.

Before the debate’s fiery finish, Utah’s four Republican Senate candidates, including Moxie Pest Control CEO Jason Walton, duked it out over the best way to burst Congress’ culture of dysfunction. The candidates largely kept to the same playbook on how to address the country’s biggest issues, including border security, rising costs and federal spending.

U.S. Rep. John Curtis speaks during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. | Rick Bowmer

Immigration

Candidates were asked what specific policy solutions they would propose to bring order to an overwhelmed immigration system. They largely agreed, placing the blame on the Biden administration and calling for a return to Trump-era policies, namely requiring migrants seeking asylum to wait out immigration proceedings on the Mexican side of the border.

“The solution is simple: build a border wall, ‘Remain in Mexico’, E-verify and cutting off any benefits to illegal immigrants,” Staggs said. “When you do that, they will largely self deport, I believe.”

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In addition to supporting H.R. 2, a House bill which includes these measures, Curtis said he also introduced legislation to rightsize the country’s migrant worker quotas to make sure American businesses get the workers they need. These proposals include giving states authority to manage a work visa program and removing country caps so the U.S. can accept more skilled workers from countries like India.

But, Curtis said, “nothing in the United States Senate or Congress is going to happen until we secure the border.”

Trent Staggs speaks during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. | Rick Bowmer

Cost of living

Wilson said his legislative leadership at the Utah Capitol is a model for what he would bring to Congress, emphasizing proper budget process and welfare reform as ways to bring down inflation for average Utahns.

“I’m running for the U.S. Senate to do one thing — to take the Utah Way to Washington, D.C., and fix our country’s greatest problems,” Wilson said.

Wilson said rising healthcare costs are a symptom of an overreaching federal government. He cited a bill he introduced as state speaker requiring drug tests and weekly job searches to qualify for state welfare programs. The approach cut the number of participants to half the national average, protecting tax payers, lowering health care costs and keeping in line with Utah values of self reliance, Wilson said.

Walton said the political experience touted by his opponents was a liability and said his business background was evidence he knew how to help workers reach the American dream. To address rising healthcare costs, Walton called for Obamacare to be repealed immediately.

“It’s socialism,” Walton said. “It sounds good and kind. What it does is it increases costs, subsequently, and it decreases the quality of service. ... We need to return to free markets.”

Brad Wilson speaks during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. | Rick Bowmer

Federal spending

Utah’s Senate candidates criticized Congress’ habit of passing opaque omnibus spending bills and committed to major spending cuts to mandatory spending programs and federal agencies.

“The process and systems in Washington, D.C., are fundamentally broken,” Wilson said. “I would never, as a U.S. senator, vote for an omnibus spending bill that I didn’t have time to read and was creating all kinds of havoc with the national debt and our deficit.”

Curtis said members of Congress are often forced to take hard votes on whether to back big bills that contain both policy wins and poison pills. But he said he would never support tax increases. He said he had proven he was willing to tell “presidents of both parties ‘no’ on their budgets.” But the biggest budget items, which never come up for a vote, are in dire need of reform, Curtis said.

The congressman called for changes to Social Security, including raising the age of eligibility for younger workers, increasing the cap on payroll taxes and tying returns to the equity market. “Those three things are not hard to do,” Curtis said.

Jason Walton speaks during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. | Rick Bowmer

Curtis criticisms

Staggs expanded his criticism of Curtis, the race’s frontrunner according to recent polling, on the topic of Donald Trump.

Staggs defeated Curtis in the final round of April’s state GOP convention 69.7-30.3% just hours after receiving Trump’s endorsement. Staggs called Trump’s New York felony conviction “the greatest example of election interference and election fraud in U.S. history” and said Curtis had not expressed sufficient support for the former president.

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A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found Curtis ahead of Staggs, his next closest candidate, by 18 percentage points. Curtis led with 34% support among registered Republican voters, while Staggs followed with 16%, Wilson with 12% and Walton with 4%. Another 33% of GOP voters said they were unsure.

Following the debate, Wilson claimed Curtis’ lead was bought and paid for by special interests.

“It looks to me like there’s this banner kind of waving over the state of Utah that says, ‘U.S. Senate seats for sale,’ and I don’t think that’s right,” Wilson said.

The race to replace Romney is the Beehive State’s first competitive Republican primary for an open Senate seat in three decades. The crowded field has flooded Utahns with millions of dollars worth of PAC endorsements and self-funded ads.

Curtis has been on the receiving end of $6.6 million in supportive PAC spending prior to the debates, the Deseret News reported, with the majority coming from Conservative Values for Utah, a PAC created to support Curtis and largely funded by Jay Faison, the head of a conservative clean energy group.

Following the debate, Curtis said Wilson’s comment was made out of “jealousy,” and called Staggs’ attack a “cheap shot.”

Curtis said he “tried a number of things” to insulate himself from criticism over his financial holdings. “I tried a blind trust, a whole bunch of things. And none of those things have worked. And so my conclusion is part of the price of service is to divest yourself of those things. And that’s what I’ve subsequently done.”

“People know what they’re going to get with John Curtis, more than any other candidate up here,” Curtis said. “I’m the one candidate they don’t have to guess about.”

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From left to right, U.S. Rep. John Curtis, Trent Staggs, Jason Walton and Brad Wilson appear on stage during the Utah Senate primary debate for Republican contenders battling to win the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, Monday, June 10, 2024, in Salt Lake City. | Rick Bowmer