Result Of Utah’s 4th Congressional District Race Could Impact The Future Of How Districts Are Drawn
Utah’s 4th Congressional District race between Republican Burgess Owens and incumbent Democrat Ben McAdams is projected to be close. In fact, the Cook Political Report has rated it a “toss up.” Leah Murry, a political scientist and Academic Director at the Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University, explained more about the history and importance of this seat.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: This race is expected to be extremely tight — what do you think will be a deciding factor?
Leah Murray: I actually think top of the ballot is going to really be a deciding factor. Everyone's paying attention. How many people in District 4 show up to vote for President Trump, and when they're there, they're voting for Burgess Owens. Whereas in 2018, you don't have as high of turnout. You do not have Trump at the top of the ballot, and then Mia Love suffers from that. The Republicans suffered from not having turnout that might have had pro-Trump support and then also having a national mood in 2018, if you will, that was moving against the president's party.
It's a very important seat in 2020 because any seat that is looking like you might bounce an incumbent — if you are the Republicans, trying to get rid of a Democratic incumbent — is going to be a nice story for you on election night.
CB: You mentioned Mia Love, a former representative from this district. How has Utah's 4th District acted as a barometer for national politics in the past?
LM: Mia Love loses in 2018 as the Republicans lose the House. So what you can see as a barometer is if the Republicans are having trouble here, they're having trouble everywhere. In 2018, Mia Love loses by a little bit. And if anyone remembers, it took a little while to find out. It took a couple weeks to know who was actually going to win. Compare that to 2016, where she wins pretty handily, and that is when President Trump wins. As a barometer for the nation, this seat, if it looks like Ben McAdams is going to win, is probably a good night for Democrats overall.
CB: Extending the metaphor a little bit because we're seeing this race so tight, it's been described as essentially a toss up. What does that say?
LM: It is fun that it is a toss up. It's not fun for Ben McAdams or Burgess Owens, but it's fun to be able to watch this election.
I think it shows when you draw districts in a way that designs competitiveness, you can actually achieve competitiveness. One of the conventional wisdoms of American politics is [that] incumbents always win. But the answer to that, especially in House seats, is part of the reasons why incumbents always win is because we have drawn districts in such a way to protect incumbents.
This race comes at the same time as our census data is coming in. So our state legislature will be drawing new districts. You can draw districts in such a way that make it a toss up even in a state like Utah.
CB: This seat is fairly new as far as House seats go. It was created in 2010. It's only been around for 10 years, but it has been a very competitive seat every single election since then. How do you think the legislature will take that into account as census data comes in and they look at redistricting again for the next 10 years?
LM: When we're teaching redistricting, this is a seat where we’re like, ‘this is what redistricting does.’ So if Ben McAdams wins, I think the state legislature goes “OK,” and they might look at it tightly again to see in what way they could draw it to guarantee a Republican outcome. I think if Burgess Owens wins, it's probably safe. I think the legislature will say, “OK, we got what we wanted out of our four seats and we don't need to redistrict.”
Utah designs its seats in such a way to send four Republicans back to the House. The fact that a Democrat won District 4 is unexpected, given the way the districts are designed. So I do think if McAdams wins this election, he will be in trouble in 2022, because in the meantime they're going to redistrict the seat to try to better guarantee a Republican outcome.