Robert Gehrke: The close race between McAdams and Owens. Did we expect anything else?

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

We all saw it coming — yet another in a string of too-close-to-call battles in Utah’s 4th Congressional District.

From the district’s creation nearly a decade ago, it has consistently been one of the nation’s most hotly contested seats.

In 2012, then-Rep. Jim Matheson won it by 748 votes — a margin of 0.3%. Two years later, after Matheson’s retirement, Republican Mia Love beat Democrat Doug Owens by a relative landslide — about 7,500 votes.

So with a Republican incumbent in place, no way we’d go back to those nail-biter elections. Then Democrat Ben McAdams said “hold my root beer” and squeaked out the most incredible win we’ve seen, as the count see-sawed back and forth until McAdams won by just 694 votes — 0.26%.

4th Congressional District Republican candidate Burgess Owens, right and Democratic Utah Congressman Ben McAdams debate on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (Kristin Murphy/ Deseret News, via AP, Pool)

So when Burgess Owens, a former NFL player and die-hard Donald Trump supporter, threw his helmet onto the field and won the Republian nomination there was no reason to think this wouldn’t be a tough, close race again. So far, it isn’t disappointing.

Going into Election Day, the polling in the district was all over the place — from a 11-point McAdams edge in the Utah Debate Commission poll (a number that seemed too high) to a slight Owens edge a couple weeks later (which also seemed unlikely).

Wednesday morning, McAdams was sitting on a roughly 7,700-vote advantage, but saw some of that whittled away as Salt Lake, Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties added to their results. By Wednesday evening, his lead had shrunk to 2,652.

There are a couple troubling indicators for Owens, though.

When Love ran in 2016 and 2018, she was able to rack up huge margins in Utah County, winning nearly three-fourths of the vote there. The calculus of the district has always been that the Republican needs to run up the score in Utah County to offset the larger share of the vote in Democrat-tilting Salt Lake County.

Owens, however, is running about eight or nine points behind where Love finished in those two elections, while McAdams is actually doing a couple points better. In Salt Lake County, McAdams is sitting right where he ended up in 2018, while Owens is about four points worse than Love’s tally.

And while Owens is running up big margins percentage-wise in the rural Juab and Sanpete counties, there really aren’t enough voters there to make a major dent.

So you can see how the math becomes problematic: Owens is doing worse than Love on his home turf, while McAdams is doing slightly better.

Then there is an added wrinkle of third-party candidates. John Molnar, who ran as a Libertarian, and Jonia Broderick, the United Utah candidate. Together they have already tallied nearly 11,300 votes, close to 5% of the ballots cast.

There was no third-party candidate in 2018 and, while I dislike the notion of “spoilers,” the share these third-party candidates are getting tracks reasonably close to Owens' underperformance this year compared with Love’s showing two years ago.

Here is Owen’s biggest problem: Even though the margin now is narrow, he’s running out of votes with which to close the lead.

Wednesday night, the Utah County clerk reported that they had just 17,000 ballots left to count in the 4th District. If Owens stays at his two-thirds pace, he will have about a 3,600-vote lead based just on those votes alone.

But there were still about 190,000 votes to count in Salt Lake County, plus 11,000 provisional ballots to be counted. Historically 54% of the countywide vote is in the 4th District, meaning McAdams could wipe out that small Utah County advantage and rack up more than enough of a cushion that the small number of votes hanging out there in Juab and Sanpete — fewer than 500 combined, some of them not in the 4th District — won’t make a difference.

Owens' only shot is that he does significantly better in all of the remaining votes throughout the district, especially Utah County.

And that’s not entirely far-fetched. On election night two years ago, McAdams was ahead of Love by nearly three points, but enough late-arriving votes went her way that she took the lead for several days, right up until the final batch of votes in Salt Lake County put McAdams in front.

So here’s the situation, using a football analogy: There’s still time on the clock, but Owens is facing fourth down and long and needs to score quick to keep himself in the game.

We’ll get our next update Thursday at 3 p.m.