Gehrke: Curtis won by appealing to the middle instead of the Republican fringe — let’s hope he keeps that up

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Curtis, Republican candidate for 3rd Congressional District awaits election results alongside his wife Sue during his election night watch party at the Provo Marriott Hotel & Conference Center Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. The winner of the November special election will fill the congressional seat recently vacated by Jason Chaffetz.

Provo Mayor John Curtis’ victory in the special election to replace Jason Chaffetz wasn’t really in doubt, at least since he won the Republican primary in August.

The real intrigue, now, is to see how the new congressman approaches his job of representing Utah’s 3rd District.

He’s talking a good game so far, offering 10 pledges during his victory speech Tuesday night, starting with Pledge No. 1: ”I pledge not to become a politician,” Curtis told cheering supporters. “I’ll put Utah principles above politics and, yes, party.”

His willingness to fight for the interest of his 750,000 constituents will be put to the test very soon.

Curtis’ arrival in Washington is being hurried along, as my Salt Lake Tribune colleague Thomas Burr reported this week, because Republican leaders, desperate for at least one policy win before year’s end, want every vote they can get for the upcoming tax bill.

He talked up tax cuts during the campaign. But the bill he's being asked to vote on would eliminate the individual deductions people can claim on their taxes, instead going to a larger standard deduction.

That works for some, but poses a real problem for many in Utah, specifically those with a lot of kids. Losing the individual deductions means that by 2027 a third of middle-income Utah families will actually see a tax increase of $1,380 per year, according to a study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

And no place will feel that impact more than Utah’s 3rd District, which is the youngest in the United States. It’s why Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and others have pushed for a larger child tax credit.

Curtis is in a rare position, though. He didn’t rely on a ton of help from Washington to win his seat, so he’s not beholden to the national party. And rather than pander to the fringe elements at convention, Curtis won in the primary, the first Utah House member to break free of the GOP delegates’ stranglehold.

It means there is an opportunity for Curtis to provide the rational representation the 3rd District needs to tackle some of its unique challenges — on taxes and beyond — rather than just advance the GOP agenda.

The 3rd District, for example, is home to the booming “Silicon Slopes,” where tech companies are starving for qualified workers and begging Congress for sensible immigration policies. And a recent Tribune poll found that 72 percent of Utahns statewide want children of undocumented immigrants — the so-called “Dreamers” — allowed to stay in the United States.

It contains vast rural areas, where resource-dependent communities are struggling to sustain the traditional extractive economies without damaging an outdoor recreation industry that brings $12 billion a year into the state.

Unemployment in those parts remains high and in San Juan, Carbon and Grand counties, for example, between 20 and 30 percent of children live in poverty.

Then there’s health care. In April, a poll from Y2 Analytics showed that half of likely Republican primary voters in the district want Obamacare repealed and replaced with something else and another one in five wanted it gone entirely.

But 3rd District residents have also benefited from Obamacare. An estimated 50,000 residents have insurance through the Obamacare exchanges — putting Utah‘s 3rd in the top 5 percent nationally, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And the rate of uninsured has plummeted, dropping by 42 percent since the passage of Obamacare, the highest decline in the state, according to the Utah Health Policy Project.

These issues and others are too complex to be boiled down to black and white. The point is, good policy will happen in the middle, not on the extremes. It’s what Utahns want and it’s in the best interest of the state and the 3rd District. The test will be if Curtis has the wisdom and the will to deliver.

So, congratulations on the win, Congressman-elect Curtis, and welcome to The Show. Now let’s see what you’ve got.