Candidates snipe and gripe during debate in race to replace Chaffetz

Issues got pushed to the back burner as heat turns up on attack-ad argument.<br>

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Tanner Ainge, John Curtis, and Chris Herrod. During the 3rd congressional district candidate debate at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo on July 11, 2017.

Provo Mayor John Curtis turned to his two Republican competitors on Monday and pleaded with them: Stop the negative campaigning.

The targeted mailers and personal attacks on TV started weeks ago in the GOP primary to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz. Most pick at Curtis for once being a registered Democrat. A few compare him to Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. Others accuse him of raising taxes during his eight years as mayor. Most are funded by out-of-state political action committees (PACs).

“Tell them (PACs) to stop.”<br>— John Curtis<br>

They’re all inaccurate, Curtis snapped midway through an hourlong debate on KSL’s “The Doug Wright Show.” His opponents, though, were quick to swat down the complaints.

“It needs to be said that I don’t have control of an outside PAC,” explained former state Rep. Chris Herrod.

“To me, it’s not negative to talk about record. And if you look at Mayor Curtis’ record, everything we say is true,” said Utah County businessman and first-time candidate Tanner Ainge.

Curtis interrupted both, urging them to cut ties with outside spending and back off false advertising in the special election.

“I can’t imagine to tell you what it’s like to have $700,000 targeted at me, telling people what is not true is true,” he said.

Ainge’s campaign got a $290,000 boost from Conservative Utah, a DC-based PAC. Most of that money — $250,000 — came from Michelle Toolson Ainge, Ainge’s mother. The group has funded a handful of mailers targeting both Curtis and Herrod for increasing taxes. Curtis, though, is surrounded in blue and given the title of “former Democrat” while Herrod is labeled only “politician.”

Ainge’s campaign committee has also funded pamphlets that call Curtis a “big spender” and say he will “spend like a Democrat in Washington.”

Curtis got feisty during Ainge’s defense of the ads, saying his picture was photoshopped to be unflattering, the facts were distorted and his competitor doesn’t “even understand how the city of Provo works.” Utah’s third-largest city, Curtis added, has seen lower property taxes and fewer employees per capita since he took office.

Ainge repeated “Excuse me, let me finish” and “you asked me a question, so I’m going to finish” as Curtis talked over him. Ainge also said a “thick skin” is a must-have in Congress.

“I‘m glad to see that John … has perked up a little bit.”<br>— Tanner Ainge<br>

Herrod has gained backing from the well-funded National Horizon group, which spent $96,000 on negative mailers targeting Curtis — mocking the mayor’s casual dress, among other things. While he doesn’t appreciate “some of the snarkiness” of the PAC’s ads, Herrod said it’s “OK to talk about” differences in record, particularly the mayor’s Democratic past.

That set off a snippy back and forth between the two.

“Chris, tell [the PACs] right now. Tell them to stop,” Curtis said.

“On which issue?” Herrod asked.

“Any of them,” Curtis responded.

“You have raised taxes. You used eminent domain …,” Herrod said before he was cut off.

“Chris, that’s a lie. You tell them right now,” Curtis shouted before the moderator broke up the discussion.

Monday’s debate started with a few questions on Medicaid expansion and health-care reform before quickly flipping to sniping and griping. The tone in the 3rd Congressional District race has shifted significantly from the first debate where the candidates took turns politely agreeing on public lands, the role of the federal government and the national debt.

Curtis has the early lead with the Aug. 15 primary fast approaching. The latest Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows the mayor trouncing his competitors by a more than 2-to-1 margin — with 37 percent of support — among Republicans registered to vote.

He also nabbed a rare pre-primary endorsement from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who said he was “a little off-putted by the negative campaigning” in the election.

But Curtis didn’t stay entirely out of the fray Monday.

Herrod went after Ainge for voting in California, not Utah, during the last election and moving back to Alpine eight months ago to run for office. Curtis jumped in to quote Ainge as once saying he’d move anywhere for his career, suggesting he isn’t devoted to the state.

“I’m glad to see that John, after just complaining about the negative campaigning, has actually perked up a little bit,” Ainge said with a laugh.

The winner of the GOP primary will face Democrat Kathie Allen and new United Utah Party candidate Jim Bennett in the general election, along with a handful of independent and third-party candidates. Chaffetz departed from office early and is now a contributor on FOX News.