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Robert Gehrke: As religious and political leaders focus on ‘Utah values,’ Burgess Owens focuses on Donald Trump

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Political candidates and special interest groups are projected to spend $11 billion on advertising this year and, it’s safe to say, a large chunk of it will be spent telling you why the opposing candidate is a horrible person.

So in a climate where billions are spent destroying each other, it was refreshing to see a different kind of ad, featuring Utah’s two major party candidates for governor, Democrat Chris Peterson and Republican Spencer Cox, calling for unity, civility and a commitment to Utah values.

“We can debate issues without degrading each other’s character,” Peterson says.

“We can disagree without hating each other,” Cox responds. “Let’s show the country there’s a better way.”

Even for a hardened cynic who prefers his politics a little spicy, it was a heart-warming — and in the current environment, important — message of unity.

It’s something Utah voters have heard a lot of lately, too.

It was featured in Dallin H. Oaks' address during The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' recent General Conference.

“In a democratic government, we will always have differences over proposed candidates and policies,” said Oaks, who is next in line to be church president. “However, as followers of Christ we must forego the anger and hatred with which political choices are debated or denounced in many settings.”

Last week, Sen. Mitt Romney issued a statement decrying the “vile, vituperative, hate-filled morass” American politics have become, “unbecoming of any free nation — let alone the birthplace of modern democracy.”

Romney specifically criticized President Donald Trump for calling Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris “a monster,” for calling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “crazy,” calling for former President Barack Obama to be jailed, and for attacking Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on the day the FBI foiled a plot to kidnap her.

He didn’t spare Democrats in the process, but the focus of Romney’s disappointment seemed to be on his party’s president.

A few days later, he criticized Trump for refusing to disavow QAnon conspiracy theories.

Everyone is singing from the same songbook, it seems, in perfect harmony.

Then Burgess Owens went on a conservative St. Louis radio show and was asked about Romney’s disagreements with the president who Owens has unabashedly, unerringly supported.

“Mitt is not representative of Utah in terms of our values here,” Owens said.

He went on: “We believe in education, God, industry and the family unit. And our president has done the best of any president since Reagan to stand for all of the above.”

So Mitt is not representative of Utah values, specifically Utahns' belief in education, God, industry and the family unit? Got it.

At this point, I could run down the constantly expanding list of things this president has done that aren’t just at odds with “Utah values,” but fly in the face of basic human decency but by now you know them and frankly, I don’t have the space — even online.

This much is clear: When it comes to character and values, Owens sides with Trump over Romney.

It’s baffling by any measure, not the least of which is political.

Owens doesn’t need to bolster his support with the Trump crowd. He’s got the far-right base and, to be sure, they are not fans of Romney. But the 4th Congressional District is not won on the extremes — it’s won in the middle, with those unaffiliated, moderate voters in places like West Jordan. And the middle is not keen on the president’s character.

According to a recent poll by Y2 Analytics, 62% of Utahns believe Trump is dishonest, 63% believe he has no religious values, more than half say he only cares for himself, and 76% disagree with Trump’s political style.

Those are statewide figures. In the 4th District, where Trump has fared the worst, the margins are surely even less favorable.

A Romney endorsement could have given Owens the bump he needed among those moderate voters, but (and I could be wrong about this) that now seems less likely than Romney starting a metal band. Why would he? It would be enabling the toxicity Romney says he’s trying to erase.

Owens went on the Rod Arquette show Monday trying to clean up the mess he made, saying he was misquoted, that he wasn’t talking about Romney. I heard the audio. It’s available online. Owens' statement is clear and when he says he was misquoted, he’s being dishonest.

To be somewhat fair to Owens, he hasn’t been on the receiving end of much civility. The attacks on him during this campaign by outside groups have been withering and relentless. Don’t bet on Owens and Democrat Ben McAdams recording a “let’s get along” ad like Peterson and Cox.

But at the end of the day — even though “Utah values” may mean something different to everyone — Utah voters recognize them when we see them and we know when we don’t. And in going all-in with the current president, Owens has proven he’s out of touch with those values.

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