Robert Gehrke: Utah Republicans gave Ben McAdams a gift by nominating Burgess Owens

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Burgess Owens, center right, former NFL player and now 4th District GOP nominee for Congress, attends a rally in support of police officers at City Hall in Salt Lake City on Saturday, June 20, 2020.

If you run down the list of last week’s primary election results, there’s one candidate who doesn’t show up anywhere on the returns. Despite getting zero votes, he had a very good night.

Rep. Ben McAdams’s 4th District seat had been targeted by election handicappers as among the most vulnerable House seats in the country. But he caught a break as Burgess Owens, a former professional football player and now a motivational speaker won the Republican nomination.

Of the four GOP candidates, Owens is, without question, the one the McAdams campaign wanted to win the primary because he is the one they have the best chance of beating.

That’s because the 4th District is generally seen as Moderateville, where everyone drives down the middle of the road and radical politics are politely rebuffed.

Robert Gehrke

It gave us Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson and, after she toned down her rhetoric following her first loss, Republican Rep. Mia Love, and then the more-moderate McAdams, whose inoffensiveness is equaled only by white rice and Spencer Cox.

It’s somewhat surprising that Owens won the Republican primary and did so in convincing fashion. But listen for the record scratch the first time mainstream 4th District voters hear Owens’ super-heated, Fox News-fueled rhetoric.

“[There is] pure evil throughout our country determined to destroy us … this is the time to come together and beat these socialist Marxists coming after us,” Owens said during the primary debate. Later, he said, “We’re dealing with people who hate our country. That’s the enemy.”

Do you think voters are going to buy the narrative that McAdams is the enemy, a socialist Marxist who hates our country and wants to destroy the Constitution?

One long-time Utah Republican politico told me Owens is a nice guy, sincere and his heart is in the right place. “But you can’t go around calling everyone on the Democrat side a bunch of Marxists,” he said. “It won’t work.”

It’s not just the jingoistic rhetoric, however, that is ill-suited to the district, it’s where he stands on the issues.

Owens is an avowed anti-masker in a state where, even most Republicans said before masks were made mandatory that they wore one as a sign of respect. Maybe they’re socialist Marxists.

He wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which isn’t just more important to Utahns now than ever, it has grown in popularity. Indeed voters in the 4th District voted in 2018 by a wide margin to expand Medicaid. Clearly socialist Marxists.

On election night, he tweeted congratulations to Lauren Boebert, a supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theories who won a primary in Colorado and who shares Owens’ zeal for rooting out both socialists AND Marxists.

Shortly after winning the primary, President Donald Trump tweeted out his endorsement of the candidate. “Congratulations, @BurgessOwens, on your impressive primary victory! A Super Bowl Champion, Burgess knows how to WIN. Strong on Life, Military, Vets and the #2A, he will always fight for Utah. Burgess has my Complete and Total Endorsement! "

Great, but the most recent Utah Policy poll shows Trump has a 39% approval rating (and 56% disapproval) in the 4th District.

Take that right-wing campaign message out to those swing precincts in West Jordan and Sandy and Draper, the ones that end up deciding who wins and loses the 4th District, and see how many are buying what he’s selling.

Owens' message will be particularly abrasive among independent women, who are regularly the most pivotal voting bloc in the district.

Not to mention that Owens sets himself up to be a foil for McAdams to contrast himself against — and if you want to see how easily that is done check out McAdams’ first campaign news conference from Monday.

McAdams touted his opposition to Trump’s idea of resuming nuclear weapons tests — something we haven’t done in this country for 28 years and security experts generally agree would offer no strategic advantage to the United States. Not a real radical position, right?

Except Owens has said he supports nuclear testing and Congress needs more Republicans willing to stand with Trump. It exposed that Owens either didn’t know or didn’t care about Utah’s dark history with nuclear weapons tests, and the countless people stricken with cancer as a result of the fallout.

In one swoop, Owens gets pegged as an outsider who will put Trump’s whims ahead of Utah’s health, and, oh, by the way, McAdams got an amendment added to legislation in the House to block nuclear weapons tests.

Owens can try to scramble to revamp his message, recast his candidacy, ditch the socialist Marxist refrain and broaden his appeal, but he’ll be doing it with a huge financial disadvantage — Owens reported having a little over $100,000 in his campaign account, compared to McAdams’ $2.2 million.

And, in the age of the internet, these primary postures don’t just disappear. We saw that in Love’s first run, where a red meat mailer promising broad cuts to popular social programs haunted her throughout the campaign.

I’m not betting the mortgage that McAdams coasts to a win. This is, after all, a district where Republicans still hold a decided edge. McAdams caught some lucky breaks last time — massive voter turnout for an off-year election spurred by the medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion initiatives — and still won by just over 700 votes.

But this time around McAdams has caught another huge break — and his name is Burgess Owens.

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