Rep. Ben McAdams, Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, sought to defend his seat against GOP candidate Burgess Owens Monday night in their first and only debate for Utah’s 4th Congressional District.
Utah’s 4th Congressional District election is one of the most competitive congressional elections, according to the Cook Political Report categorizing the race as a “toss up.” Rep. McAdams narrowly won the seat in 2018, eking out a victory by under 700 votes.
His challenger, Owens — a former NFL player — has been a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump’s administration and has appeared as a commentator on FOX News in the past.
The debate was moderated by Doug Wilks, editor for Deseret News, covering COVID-19 responses, racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, healthcare reform, child trafficking and climate change. The debate emphasized social distance, allowing no live audience.
McAdams emphasizes bipartisanship in re-election bid
McAdams began the night with an analysis of the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although he commended the initial bipartisan efforts to offer aid, he said Washington and Congress have failed the American people.
He pointed to the harsh divisions within Congress, causing an inability to pass another virus aid relief bill since the onset of the pandemic.
McAdams largely kept to his narrative of being the most independent, moderate politician in Congress — citing his willingness to vote against party lines. He closed the debate with a promise to do what is best for Utahns regardless of partisan controversies.
Owens criticizes Democratic Party, pushes GOP values
Owens pushed a more traditionally-Republican stance: Arguing for the value of a free market and a return to traditional values of God and family. He criticized McAdams and the Democratic party, arguing it largely depends on fear to control votes.
Although the fight against COVID-19 will require putting partisanship aside, Owens said pandemic plans will rely on “more than just bailing out blue states who don’t deserve it.”
Candidates clash on issue of racism
The candidates butted heads on the Black Lives Matter movement and the existence of institutional racism.
“Black Lives Matter, BLM Inc., in their manifesto, are against capitalism, against the nuclear family and they are against God,” Owens said. “Good people, please don’t let a special interest drive the process. Know who they are. Do your homework.”
Owens said the U.S. is not systemically racist — which contrasted with his opening statement assertion that he’d been discriminated against by the KKK when growing up in the Deep South.
McAdams said that although the country has made significant progress in the fight against racism, there is still more to be done. He acknowledged George Floyd’s death as a murder and said that now is the time to look internally for the next steps forward against racism.
McAdams, Owens split on health care
The two candidates also disagreed on protections for those with pre-existing conditions. During the debate, a Salt Lake Community College student with type 1 diabetes asked how he would be protected if the Affordable Care Act was repealed — a promise President Trump has emphasized throughout his campaign.
Owens argued Republicans would not remove protections for pre-existing conditions. However, McAdams pressed the issue — asking Owens how he would protect these issues.
The congressman pointed to Owens’ website, which had policies that argued against the protections in ACA as recently as Sept. 22.
Owens denied his website had ever endorsed removing protections for pre-existing health conditions. He refuted McAdams — arguing it was typical for Democrats to lie about the topic.
He went on to defend a statement he made prior to the debate that called Democrat leaders “narcissists and sociopaths” — noting he would stand by it.
“The reality is our Judeo-Christian values has given us the great country we are,” Owens said. “There’s another side of that picture that hates every part of that. And [Democrats] use misery as a political tool.”
McAdams said Owens’ “words are troubling, in a time when America finds ourselves as divided as I’ve ever seen us.”
“I think a lot of people are like me,” McAdams said. “We are exhausted of the controversy and the division and we want to come together.”
Owens denies ties to online conspiracy group
While Owens denied embracing QAnon, a far-right conspiracy group, McAdams said the lack of accountability on the issue showed a “pattern of bad judgment.”
Despite appearing on a web show with people who identify themselves as being part of the QAnon moment, Owens denied knowing who the group is or what they believe in.
Candidates close the night, give last election pitch
Owens closed out the night advocating for faith, hard work and family as values to get America through the COVID-19 pandemic and lawlessness — referring to the Black Lives Matter movement — the country is seeing.
McAdams again emphasized his independence from partisan divides — he said some voters do not think he is liberal enough while others do not think he is conservative enough.
“You may not always agree with me, but you know my heart’s in the right place,” McAdams said. “I’d be honored to continue to represent you in Congress.”