SALT LAKE CITY — The Republican race to fill a Utah congressional seat abandoned by Jason Chaffetz is pitting the party establishment, which is backing a popular mayor with a Democratic past, against further-right conservatives who are divided between two candidates with support from national GOP heavy-hitters.
The winner of Tuesday’s primary will be the overwhelming favorite in the November special election in a district where Republican voters outnumber Democrats five-to-one.
The three candidates say they support President Donald Trump’s agenda, including the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, tax reform and efforts to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health care law.
But in Mormon-majority Utah, where Trump struggled to gain widespread support despite the state’s overwhelmingly Republican slant, the candidates have carved out nuanced stances toward the president.
John Curtis, the Provo mayor who has drawn support from the GOP’s more moderate flank, is the only candidate who didn’t vote for Trump, saying he had significant moral concerns about supporting the billionaire businessman.
Tanner Ainge, the son of Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge endorsed by Sarah Palin, said he voted for Trump because he always votes for the Republican candidate in presidential elections.
Chris Herrod, a former state lawmaker backed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, is the most vocal supporter of Trump. He said he did not think it was necessary for a special prosecutor to be appointed to look into possible ties between the president’s campaign and Russia.
The victor of the November election will serve the final year of Chaffetz’s term after the outspoken congressman surprisingly resigned at the end of June, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family after eight years in office. He’s since taken a role as a Fox News commentator and announced he will be one of six visiting fellows at Harvard University this fall.
Curtis has outraised his opponents and drawn most of their barbs. He initially had a strong lead, but the race has tightened in recent days as the campaign has grown increasingly negative, said Boyd Matheson, a veteran Utah Republican strategist who runs the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank.
“I would call it a toss-up up at this point,” Matheson said. “There could be some very subtle things before now and Tuesday morning that could ultimately impact it.”
Curtis, a 57-year-old social-media savvy politician who ran a shooting range business before serving eight years as Provo’s mayor, earned a rare primary endorsement from Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.
He’s faced suspicion from some conservatives for previously serving as head of the county Democratic Party and running as a Democrat for the Legislature in 2000 before switching parties in 2006.
Curtis notes that Ronald Reagan, Trump and even Chaffetz were all Democrats at one point in their lives and said he’s a conservative who used his “fling on the dark side” to try to push local Democrats to embrace pro-gun and anti-abortion positions.
Tanner Ainge, a 33-year-old first-time candidate and consulting firm owner, is the son of a former NBA player who is still revered for his time as a basketball star at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University. Father Danny Ainge headlined a campaign fundraiser for his son where people could try to dunk him in a water tank.
A political action committee almost entirely funded by a $250,000 contribution from the elder Ainge and his wife has targeted Curtis and Herrod, drawing scrutiny. Federal law prohibits campaigns and candidates from coordinating with super PACs, something both Tanner Ainge and his family deny has occurred.
Tanner Ainge said he’s pleased to have family support but he’s running on his own resume. He went to college in Utah but has been criticized as an outsider after just moving back in November and not voting there since 2008. He says he’s a lifelong Republican who has always wanted to raise his family in the state.
Herrod, 51, is a home loan officer who says his time in the 1990s living in Russia and Ukraine gives him an understanding of international affairs and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Herrod, who backed Cruz and later Trump in the presidential election, was known in the Utah Legislature for his hard-line immigration positions, including punishing businesses that hired workers in the U.S. illegally and fighting a Republican guest-worker proposal.
The GOP primary winner will face two candidates in the November election for the 3rd Congressional District, which stretches from the Salt Lake City suburbs and several ski towns southeast to Provo and Utah coal country.
Democratic physician and political newcomer Kathryn Allen socked away more than half a million dollars earlier this year after she called out Chaffetz for his comments suggesting people should spend money on health care instead of iPhones.
Jim Bennett, the son of late U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, is running as a third-party candidate. Both are considered longshots in the GOP-dominated district.