Race for Sole Democratic Congressional Seat in the Utah Fourth District Remains Competitive

Incumbent Rep. Ben McAdams faces close race against Republican Challenger Burgess Owens


UT-04 Democratic Candidate Ben McAdams with supporters. (Photo courtesy of the Ben McAdams campaign)

By Jack O'Leary and Megan McKellar



On Nov. 3, 2020, voters across the nation, who haven’t sent in mail-in ballots, will head to the polls, with Republicans hoping to keep the White House, Senate majority, and take back the house while Democrats hope to do the opposite.

In Utah, the state’s lone Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, looks to maintain his seat against GOP challenger Burgess Owens. McAdams flipped the district in the 2018 midterms, defeating GOP incumbent Rep. Mia Love by less than 700 votes: 50.1% to 49.9%.

According to Dr. Jim Curry, a professor in the political science department at the University of Utah, the biggest reason the race is so close is the balance of people who are typical or likely Democratic voters, and people who are typical or likely Republican voters.  

“It’s been a fairly competitive race most years since 2012 when that district was created,” Curry said. 

On Monday, Oct. 11, the two candidates faced off in a local debate hosted by the Utah Debate Commission. The candidates fielded questions on topics such as education, climate change, healthcare, coronavirus, human trafficking, and the QAnon conspiracy. 

“When I was in college, your government loan, the interest would be deferred until you finish college and that was so critical to me that… I think we need to make community college costs come way down so that, you know, I mean, that everybody has that option for first education at some point that money should never keep somebody from achieving a college degree,” McAdams said.

Public opinion on Ben McAdams according to Deseret News. (Graphic by Piper Armstrong | Daily Utah Chronicle) (Piper McAdams)

Owens, born in Tallahassee, is a former football player for the New York Jets and the founder of the nonprofit group Second Chance 4 Youth. He wants to shrink the Department of Education, saying on his website that it has grown beyond its original purpose and that education decisions should be made on the local level. Owens also said that preexisting health conditions are not an issue regarding Obamacare.

“We came here to decide if we will repeal Obamacare. We will now reform Obamacare… Nowhere on my website has that come up and this is what I want to make sure everybody understands, it is time for us to really hold our representatives accountable. All we ask of them is two things. To be honest and to keep your word,” Owens said.

McAdams criticized Owens that he wants to eliminate Obamacare and that his website was changed in late September after McAdams brought up the issue. According to Owens, to talk about preexisting conditions as an issue is using fear as a way to get votes and that it is typical of his opponent to throw stuff out there that isn’t true.

“In order for laws to be enacted they have to be bipartisan and that is the reality… I teamed up with one of my fellow problem solvers members [House Problem Solvers Caucus], a Republican from Ohio, and we sponsored legislation to advance solar energy and to look at air quality that is affecting us here in Utah,” McAdams said.

Owens stated that the United States leads the world in decreasing pollution, and CO2 emissions are the free market. According to Owens, the free market should handle solutions and take the lead instead of the government on solving issues related to climate change.

Public opinion on Burgess Owens according to Deseret News. ( Graphic by Piper Armstrong | Daily Utah Chronicle) (Piper Armstrong)

“This is the most important election of our lifetime, and so many things about our future will be shaped to this election, but it’s important to get out and vote. No matter who you vote for, it’s important to vote and take part in shaping this… find people who you think can take our country in the right direction and work to heal what’s broken in our government, and to be part of this historic election and setting records for the future,” McAdams said.

Another factor in the competitive nature of the district race is Ben McAdams, who has “enough of a crossover appeal with moderate Republican voters that he can be more competitive than maybe a generic Democratic candidate might otherwise be in that district,” Curry continued.  

Regarding Republican candidate Owens, Curry doesn’t believe he has any special appeal other than his status as a Republican nominee.  

“I think the bigger story is about McAdams’ ability to hang on to enough people who in the past might have voted for the Republican nominee … that makes him endurable competitive in that district,” Curry said.  

Curry predicted the race a toss-up, but if he had to guess, he would predict McAdams winning marginally because of his crossover appeal, the amount of Democratic money backing him and the fact that Republican attempts to tie McAdams to “less appealing” Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi have seemed to be unsuccessful. 

“But it’s really going to be one of the tightest races in the country,” Curry said.  

For people who are watching how things may go broadly on election night, the 4th Congressional District race could be something of a bellwether, according to Curry. 

“If it’s a good night for Ben McAdams winning reelection, that may suggest that this is a good night for Democrats overall on election night. … Also, it could mean that Ben McAdams has maybe solidified himself for a while as a member of Congress, even in a district that could be otherwise difficult for Democrats to hold on to. I think that’s just how much this race sort of signals about the national environment,” Curry said. 

While the candidates disagreed on multiple issues, they both agreed that they need to work to fix what is broken in Washington.


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