Politics

Curtis Poised to Succeed Chaffetz in Utah

Provo mayor is the favorite in heavily Republican 3rd District

Republican John Curtis is the big favorite to win the special election in Utah’s 3rd District on Tuesday. (Courtesy John Curtis/Facebook)

Former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz will most likely be replaced by a fellow Republican after voters head to the polls in the state’s 3rd District on Tuesday. But don’t expect the GOP candidate, Provo Mayor John Curtis, to follow in Chaffetz’s footsteps. 

“If someone is expecting me to be a Jason clone, they’ll be disappointed,” Curtis said in a phone interview.

He has led in recent polls in the deep-red district, and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Tuesday’s contest Solid Republican

Curtis faces Democrat Kathie Allen, Jim Bennett of the United Utah Party and a handful of other opponents. Bennett is the son of the late GOP Sen. Robert F. Bennett. Those contenders are hoping that voters dissatisfied with Curtis and President Donald Trump will support them instead. 

The race 

Curtis had a nearly 30-point lead in a Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll conducted in early October. Forty-six percent of those surveyed backed Curtis, 19 percent backed Allen and 9 percent backed Bennett.

Allen, a physician, said potentially low voter turnout in the special election could help her chances.

But the district’s partisan makeup still puts Curtis as the likely winner. Republican voters outnumber Democrats by roughly six to one. Unaffiliated voters comprise nearly a third of registered voters, according to data provided by the Utah lieutenant governor’s office.

Trump carried the district by 24 points last year, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections, but with less than a majority.

Both Allen and Bennett have sharply criticized the president and knocked Curtis for not condemning Trump.

“He tries to walk a very fine line, claiming that you can support Trump’s policies without supporting Trump the man,” Allen said in a phone interview. “We don’t believe that.”

Curtis acknowledged that supporting the president’s agenda while distancing himself from Trump as a person has been a difficult balance.

“I’ve probably learned the hard way to be careful to define the Trump agenda,” he said. “I’m talking about things like tax reform, the elimination of unnecessary regulation, a strong national defense. … I don’t condone bullying or meanness, bigotry or anything like that.”

Allen has raked in nearly $830,000 in her campaign, despite the heavily Republican lean of the district. Curtis has raised roughly $764,000.

Most of Allen’s donations came when Chaffetz was still in the race. She decided to run shortly after the congressman held a contentious town hall in February.

Allen sat in the sixth row at the meeting, and was infuriated when Chaffetz dodged a question about Planned Parenthood. Before she became a physician, Allen worked for California GOP Rep. Shirley N. Pettis and remembers answering every letter and phone call made to the office.

“This is a poor public servant,” Allen recalled thinking to herself at the meeting. “And I know what a good public servant is.”

Despite the significant fundraising, Allen has hovered at around 20 percent in polls, though she said the polls are dated, and were taken before the candidate debates.

Curtis, nevertheless, is in a strong position heading into Tuesday. So who is the moderate-leaning, sock-loving, ultrapopular mayor of Provo?

A problem solver

Asked how he would differ from Chaffetz in office, Curtis said he likes to “dig in” and find solutions to problems. He then turned to his spokesman, searching for a phrase the spokesman had used earlier.

It was a familiar phrase to describe members of Congress: “A workhorse, not a show horse.” 

He is also known for his flashy socks. Curtis has more than 200 pairs of unique socks, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. What started out as a bargain buy turned into quite the collection, and Curtis said they’re conversation starters.

Curtis has reportedly enjoyed approval ratings of more than 90 percent as mayor of Provo, the largest city in the 3rd District that is also home to Brigham Young University. 

He has been juggling mayoral duties while running for Congress. He had already decided not to run for a third term as Provo’s mayor before the congressional seat opened up.

Curtis then decided he wasn’t done with politics, and jumped into the race after Chaffetz announced he would resign. Curtis won the GOP primary in August by 11 points. He did not win the support of delegates at the GOP convention, which tends to favor conservative candidates. He got on the ballot by collecting enough signatures. 

The Provo mayor said he is conservative, even though he is the former chairman of the Utah Democratic Party.

If elected, Curtis is more likely to align with some of the moderate-leaning Republicans in Congress rather than the conservative Freedom Caucus. He also has the backing of GOP leadership. Twenty lawmakers have donated to his campaign, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

“Principally, I’ll align with Problem Solvers and people who can work with everybody to find answers,” Curtis said, referring to the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

As a congressman, Curtis would be thrown into the debate over a massive tax overhaul. He said he would likely support the GOP bill unveiled last week though he could break with his party on a number of other issues.

Curtis supports the Second Amendment and helped build a shooting range company known as Action Target. But he would also support legislation banning bump stocks, which can make a semiautomatic weapon fire like an automatic one. He also backs a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants illegally brought to the U.S. as children.

And despite recent controversy about a Facebook ad his campaign ran that urged Congress to “build the wall,” Curtis said it would be “very hard” for him to support such a construction along the southern border. The wall was one of Trump’s key campaign promises.

While Curtis said he wants to stick to the issues, he acknowledged that if he’s elected, he’d likely continue to be asked to respond to Trump’s statements.

“I kind of put that down as an occupational hazard,” he said.

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