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Presidential Election Controversy Creeps Into Utah's 3rd Congressional Race

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Democrat Stephen Tryon is challenging four term incumbent Jason Chaffetz for his house seat.

Candidates vying for the seat in Utah’s third congressional district are locked in a spirited contest. Democrat Stephen Tryon faces four term incumbent Jason Chaffetz, who—despite a controversial election season—has strong support.

Although, Chaffetz's support has not deterred Tryon in any way. When he showed up early for an interview at the KUER studios he didn’t sit down and wait in the lobby like most guests.


“He just started talking to me," says Jeanette Foulger, the receptionist here. “He left his card with me and I said you know I can’t vote for you I’m not in that district.”


Tryon says he didn't mind, and was happy to talk about why he was running.


Former executive at and bronze star army veteran, Tryon now faces the challenge of being a Democratic congressional candidate in Utah. Which means he’s sharing his message every opportunity he gets. With anyone who will listen.


"The elevator speech is that I’m a career citizen. You know like I said I served as an infantry officer for 22 years," says Tryon, whose military service in front and center to why he’s running for congress.


“I’ve fought for our country and it means something to me I mean I’ve handed a flag to a widow after commanding the funeral detachment at her funeral," says Tryon. "I’ve held a bandage to a bullet hole and had a young American how much he doesn’t want to die. Taking care of our republic is sacred.”


His emotions are close to the surface as he describes his service. He says this sense of duty is why he is qualified to represent Utah’s 3rd district.


The 3rd district includes the southeastern portion of the state. From Holladay down through Moab. And has a population that has voted more than 70% Republican in past congressional elections.


That disadvantage hasn't stopped Tryon from aligning with Democrat values. He says we should make protecting the environment a priority, increase taxes on the wealthy and, “Raise the minimum wage. It’s precisely what we need to do. Do we need to do it carefully? Yes," says Tryon.


But most of Tryon’s message is aimed squarely at Congressmen Jason Chaffetz, who, as the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has a long history of attacking the Obama administration.


Tryon thinks he’s been reckless with that influence, especially when it comes to Hillary Clinton. And he stood up for the Democratic presidential nominee during a recent debate with Chaffetz.


“I find Hillary Clinton to be a patriot. I think she is a good civil servant. I think she has been wrongfully characterized by congressman Chaffetz," said Tryon.


“Of course we hold people accountable of course we go after the president," responded Chaffetz. "My job is not to be a cheerleader for the president. My job is to hold them accountable. Trust but verify. It’s the FBI that came up with the conclusion. It’s the FBI agent who said there was a quid pro quo discussion going on here."


Chaffetz is referring to Secretary Clinton’s emails of course, emails that Clinton kept on a private server during her time as Secretary of State—which might have put some confidential information at risk.


Those emails are also a major reason Chaffetz has become a household name outside of his home state, along with his involvement in the Benghazi hearings and his run for speaker of the house earlier this year.


“He does strive to root out waste fraud and abuse. And he’s very transparent about that. And he’s very candid with his constituents," says Leslie Jones, a realtor who lives and works in the 3rd district.


Jones likes that Chaffetz is known for being a watchdog in Washington. “He is aggressively respectful of people that he’s questioning.”


Others in the 3rd district aren’t too proud of his reputation.


“The way he’s treated Hillary like it’s his own personal Vendetta to bring her down is just deplorable I think," says C.Jane Kendrick, a writer and blogger who lives in Provo.


But Chris Karpowitz, professor of political science at Brigham Young University, says that regardless of how people feel, Chaffetz has his job for a reason.


“He’s been very effective in pursuing republican interests in Washington D.C. and being a public spokesperson for issues the republican party has cared about," says Karpowitz.


He sees Chaffetz’s watchdog reputation working in his favor this election. What hasn’t been working in his favor—Trump.


The congressman has found himself stuck between Hillary Clinton, a Democrat he has tirelessly tried to discredit. And Trump, the party candidate he has struggled with since the election began.


In fact, Chaffetz went on Fox13 to un-endorse Trump after a video leak that showed the candidate making crude remarks about women.


Chaffetz said, “I’m out. I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president. It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments you can possibly imagine.”


And yet, last week, Chaffetz tweeted this: "I will not defend or endorse Donald Trump, but I am voting for him.  HRC is that bad.  HRC is bad for the USA."


Karpowitz says that kind of a back and forth is damaging. But does that mean Chaffetz is in danger of losing the 3rd district?


“No," Karpowitz says, "but he does seem out of touch with republicans in the state who are really struggling with the Donald Trump candidacy.”


This could come back to haunt Chaffetz in the future, or any Republican in the 3rd district, where Karpowitz says the Democrats are gaining some strength. And he sees a candidate like Stephen Tryon as evidence of that change. He says Tryon is much more qualified that many of his predecessors.


“Maybe this is a first step toward more competitive elections in the future," says Karpowitz.


It also might be a step toward a more constructive dialogue between the parties. Which could be aided by an election year like 2016. A year when many voters in the 3rd don’t believe their interests are represented in Washington, and they just might be open to something different.

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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