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Election news from across Utah's statewide and national races in 2020.

Four Candidates Want To Be The Republican To Unseat Rep. Ben McAdams, But Who Has The Best Shot?

Illustration of two people on ladders painting a blue wall red
Four Republicans are competing to go up against Utah’s lone Democratic Congressman Ben McAdams in November. ";

Who can unseat Utah’s lone Democratic congressman, Ben McAdams?

That’s the question before Republican voters as they pick which of four primary candidates will go up against McAdams in November to represent the 4th Congressional District. 

At a recent debate for the June Primary, candidate and state representative Kim Coleman turned the attention to November. 

“I want to start by talking about what this race really is about,” Coleman said. “People are going to be deciding on which of us is the better candidate to beat Ben McAdams and to represent their values, their principles, their home in Congress.” 

McAdams won his seat in 2018 by just 0.2% and less than 700 votes. Many Republicans think because he won by such a slim margin, they have a good chance to flip the seat. 

Weber State University Political Science Professor Leah Murray said in order to unseat a moderate Democratic incumbent, you need two things: moderate politics and money. 

Moderate vs. Conservative Politics

According to Murray, the Republican candidates need to be careful not to offend the voters who elected a Democrat. 

“The problem for the primary candidates is right now they've got to be looking as conservative as possible without looking like so much of an ideologue,” Murray said, “so that critical mass of Democrats doesn’t get really feisty.”

While Murray said a moderate candidate has the best shot at defeating McAdams in the fall, that’s a subject of debate between the candidates and among voters. 

Former KSL radio talk show host Jay Mcfarland is making the case that he’s the only moderate in the race because he doesn’t villainize Democrats.

“The reality is, two years ago, District Four chose a moderate Democrat,” he said. “What makes you think that suddenly they're going to choose an extreme conservative? They're not.”

Photo of the candidates standing behind podiums
Credit Pool photo
Candidates Trent Christensen, Kim Coleman, Jay McFarland and Burgess Owens speak during the 4th District GOP Debate at the KUED studios on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 1, 2020.

West Jordan Republican voter Desiree Frederick said that’s important to her and it’s why she’s supporting Mcfarland. 

“I really look for somebody that's looking for the art of compromise, reasoned approach,” she said, “and really looking to find a way to make our government work.”

But Jared Bradley, who lives in Saratoga Springs, said he thinks any of the Republican candidates could beat McAdams, because even though they elected a Democrat, the district isconservative. In the last two presidential elections, it was 13% more Republican than the national average. Bradley said he’s voting for former NFL player Burgess Owens. 

“Because of who Ben McAdams is, I'm not sure any of the other candidates couldn't beat him,” he said. “I'm just kind of looking past that. I'm looking at: how are they going to conduct themselves? And to me, Burgess Owens is a problem solver.”

State representative Kim Coleman agrees that the district is conservative, not moderate. She said there were unique circumstances in 2018 that led the district to swing blue.

“We had some ballot initiatives that leaned more attractive to Democrats,” she said. “We also had a president that was really turning the corner on popularity. So that's no longer a question. This district decidedly supports President Trump, as I do.”

Money Makes The Difference

A healthy bank account is the other half of what political scientist Leah Murray said challengers need to beat a sitting representative. 

“If challengers are going to beat incumbents, they have to outspend the incumbent by quite a bit,” she said. “Because he's a sitting office member, press are going to cover him. So he kind of gets free advertising.”

Coleman and former Romney fundraiser Trent Christensen have both been making the case on the campaign trail that they can raise enough to beat McAdams in the fall. 

“Fundraising is about relationships,” Christensen said. “I have a network that goes back to my days of working on the Romney team that is still very active.”

But Murray said it’s really difficult to outraise an incumbent, because donors view giving to them as a pretty safe bet they’re donating to the race’s winner.

“If I'm spending money, what I'm trying to get is access to an elected official,” she said. “If the elected official is someone who can win and is in Congress … I'm like, ‘I need to be someone they like.’”

As of right now, McAdams has left all the Republicans in the dust. He’s raised around $2.8 million, according to his most recent filing with the Federal Elections Commission. But McAdams’ campaign manager Andrew Roberts pushed back on the connection between campaign donations and political power. 

Rep. Ben McAdams has raised roughly $2.8 million for his re-election campaign. In the lead up to the primary, Republican candidates are lagging far behind. | Source: Federal Election Commision

“Nobody buys access from the congressman,” Roberts said. “In fact, I think if you look at his record, he has a strong record of standing up to campaign donors when he thinks that what they're pursuing is wrong.”

Burgess Owens has raised more than $600,000. That’s the most of any Republican candidate but far behind McAdams’ millions. 

The race’s money situation could change dramatically over the next few months, Murray said.

“The RNC has got this district on their list,” she said. “So they're going to funnel outside money to District Four the minute there's a nominee.”

As for McAdams, he’s spent just a fraction of his war chest, and his campaign manager said they should start spending much more of it in September. 

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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