By Monday night — less than a week after winning election to become Utah’s newest congressman — John Curtis will be in Washington getting sworn in and casting his first vote.
It’s a tad overwhelming, he said with a laugh Wednesday, and “a little surreal.”
With a Republican-led Congress eager to pass major reforms, the freshman GOP legislator could offer one more vote toward a tax plan or a health-care proposal. Getting him on board quickly is purely tactical, said David Magleby, a political science professor at Brigham Young University.
“He enters at a time when every vote is going to count,” Magleby added. “He’s going to have to make some really early, strategic decisions about where he wants to be in the Republican conference and in Congress as a whole.”
The state has gone without one representative for more than four months after Jason Chaffetz unexpectedly stepped down from office in June and joined Fox News as a contributor. Curtis will serve the final year of that term.
He captured a roughly 30-point lead Tuesday night over Democrat Kathie Allen and will step down as mayor of Provo before taking the oath Monday at 6 p.m. Eastern time. He led the city, the state’s third largest and one of the most conservative in the nation, for two terms.
“I don’t want to give that up,” the congressman-elect joked Wednesday during a moderated conversation hosted by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. “But I’m excited about what’s ahead.”
Before jumping into the race a few months ago, Curtis, 57, said he was debating whether to run or retire. “We won’t reanalyze that decision now,” he added as the crowd of 40 laughed.
The mayor spoke with House Speaker Paul Ryan a few weeks ago and gave his committee preference: energy and commerce. No one on Utah’s all-Republican federal delegation currently sits on that panel, one of the most expansive and powerful in Congress.
“It’s a nice fit for him in terms of servicing his constituency,” Magleby said. The congressman-elect is expected to get his formal assignment soon and promised to work hard no matter where he’s placed.
The committee oversees environmental health, transportation and energy supplies — particularly of interest to rural Utahns invested in coal mining and oil drilling. The likely reduction to Bears Ears National Monument, too, could open up swaths for development in San Juan County.
Curtis gained more than 50 percent of the vote there, according to unofficial results, as well as a slight majority in Salt Lake County, where Democrats are expected to do their best, and more than five times Allen’s tally in Utah County, which includes about 60 percent of the registered Republicans in the 3rd Congressional District.
Allen, a physician and first-time candidate, won Grand County with nearly two times more votes than the mayor.
She tweeted after election night that “Curtis is Mormon and Republican. I am neither. That really seems to be the only thing that Utah County cares about, just as I was warned.” The message was not well-received and was deleted a few hours after midnight.
She later posted an apology, saying “it hurts to lose. I am sorry for this remark. It was only up for a few hrs in the middle of the night when I was grieving.”
On Wednesday night, Allen published a Facebook post further clarifying her remarks, saying she wanted to “examine some facts, for those of you who are so deeply offended.”
“Is Utah County not largely LDS? Why do we have zero non-LDS members of Congress among 2 Senators and 4 Reps?” the post says. “Why did so many people hate Hillary more than they hated Trump?”
The post continues: “And please don’t tell me it’s because we are all flawed. We aren’t any more flawed as human beings than Republicans. Everyone is flawed. That’s why every religion calls upon us to forgive each other.”
Daniel Friend, Allen’s former campaign spokesman and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the original tweet was “posted in frustration” and removed after Allen “thought the better of it.”
“If this had been any other district that wasn’t gerrymandered so darn bad, we might have won last night,” he said, suggesting voters chose Curtis because he was the Republican in the race, not because of his faith.
The 3rd District has been represented by just one Democrat since it was created in 1982 — the late conservative Democrat Bill Orton — who served from 1991-1997.
Allen plans to return to her job serving Utah Transit Authority staff at a private clinic in two weeks and intends to continue her efforts to reform the partisan way the state’s congressional boundaries are drawn. She said Wednesday that before she decides to launch another bid for office, she will “sort through how I feel about politics.”
The longtime physician ran an unprecedented and well-financed campaign, raking in more than $800,000 in the strongly GOP-tilted district. She slammed the lack of support she got from the national Democratic Party.
“I was disappointed, but we certainly moved the needle,” she said.
The mayor said both Allen and the new United Utah Party’s Jim Bennett, son of the late three-term Sen. Bob Bennett, graciously conceded Tuesday night. He began assembling his team the next morning, naming Corey Norman, a longtime friend and deputy mayor of Provo, his chief of staff. Norman previously worked for Chris Cannon, who held the 3rd District seat ahead of Chaffetz and after Orton.
Over the next year, Curtis will have to navigate building a team, figuring out how Capitol Hill works and launching a 2018 re-election campaign.
“This first year is going to be a lot of firsts,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics. “It’s going to be a lot of time trying to understand how the system works.”
Curtis’ priorities include what’s already at the top of the Republican agenda: tax reform and restructuring health care. He would also like to sponsor a public lands initiative bill for Emery County.
And although he wrote in a “good friend’s name” instead of voting for Donald Trump last year, Curtis wants the president to be successful and intends to work with the administration when he agrees with it.
“Many people want you to take Trump at an all-or-nothing approach. They’re so offended by some of the mannerisms and the Trumpisms that they can’t look past them,” he said Wednesday. “Sure, there are things that bother me, and they should bother us. But if we’re willing to make that so extreme that we won’t talk about tax reform or we won’t move forward looking for solutions to problems, then I don’t think I’m representing the district well if I’m doing that.”
Though Curtis will be sworn in more than two weeks before the official canvass, state election director Mark Thomas said there are not enough mail-in ballots outstanding “that would change the outcome.” The race saw roughly 32 percent voter turnout.