Logan • The Democratic and United Utah Party candidates in Utah’s 1st Congressional District came out swinging against incumbent Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican, at the Utah Debate Commission’s debate on Wednesday night.
It will be up to voters in November to decide whether they landed any of their punches.
Bishop’s opponents seemed to take little notice of one another but aimed to paint the Republican as a career politician who represents special interests rather than Utah voters.
The United Utah Party’s Eric Eliason critiqued the congressman, for example, for pushing to diminish the size of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument without protecting those areas from mining extraction.
“Follow the money,” Eliason said. “Ninety percent of Mr. Bishop’s campaign finances come from out of the state of Utah. I think it’s around 80 percent right now and No. 1 on the list, or No. 2 depending on the year, is oil and gas. His committee has received $6 million from the oil and gas industry. I have a hard time seeing how our congressman can be objective when that is the case.”
Bishop touted his long experience in government and Congress and his position as the only conservative in the race — values he says have served him well in Washington, D.C., and with the majority of Utah voters.
As for campaign donations? Bishop said they don’t play into his decisions.
“Nobody really knows and sees my heart,” he said. “I find it somewhat unfair and somewhat offensive when people say I do things because of money. I do not sell my votes.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Castillo countered.
The stage Wednesday was the most crowded of the Utah Debate Commission series, as Eliason was the only third party candidate in any major race to make the commission’s cut.
It’s unusual to see three candidates on stage at a debate, but this isn’t the first time the fledgling United Utah Party has qualified under the commission’s rules. Last year, UUP candidate Jim Bennett narrowly qualified to join Democrat Kathie Allen and now-Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, at a 3rd Congressional District debate.
Even facing two candidates who have earned enough support to stand in the debate, Bishop appears best positioned for November’s election. A new Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found he has a clear path to re-election, with some 52 percent of voters favoring the congressman — a 32-point lead over Democrat Lee Castillo. Support for Eliason was at 10 percent.
Federal Election Commission filings also show Bishop has far more spending power than either of his opponents. The congressman has raised more than $243,800 from July 1 to Sept. 30 — and he has around $525,700 in cash on hand. Eliason, a Logan businessman, has outraised his Democratic opponent this quarter, but his numbers seem miniscule in comparison. He’s raised just over $22,000 to Castillo’s $13,000.
Immigration and border control
On the issue of immigration, Bishop said “compassion and security have never been mutually exclusive.”
But when asked if he would support a path to citizenship for ‘Dreamers’ — who were brought to the United States illegally as children — he said the country needs to focus on securing its borders first and then on creating a pathway for legal immigration.
“The first thing is to lower the anger and the anxiety that people have so that you can look people in the eye and say, ‘Yes, we have control of the border and then these issues … are going to be easy to solve," he said. "But it can’t happen until we actually have control of the border.”
A Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll conducted in June found that 71 percent of registered voters statewide support allowing those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to remain in the country.
Castillo and Eliason both expressed support for creating a pathway to citizenship for ‘Dreamers’ and opposed policies enacted by President Donald Trump’s administration that led to the separation of families at the southern border.
“This administration is an issue,” Castillo said, “and we have to have a congressman who is not afraid to stand up to the administration as well as their own party and speak out against these and act in a humane way.”
The Trump administration has imposed tariffs in recent months on steel, aluminum and thousands of other products traded around the world, arguing that unfair trade practices threatened American manufacturers. While the trade war and its effects have hit multiple countries, the United States’ primary target has been China, and it has levied tariffs on at least $200 billion worth of goods from that country.
Castillo says he “absolutely” opposes the tariffs and their impacts on foreign relations.
“We are alienating our allies,” he said. “We are creating problems where there were none before. We’re putting American people, Utah people out of work by these tariffs.”
Eliason also raised concerns about the tariffs, noting that they have increased costs for a wastewater treatment center in Logan by $25 million and said he thinks some tariffs conditions could be renegotiated.
While Bishop said the president has taken an “unusual” approach to trade, he countered that the tariffs have been positive for some industries — including a steel company he said “has been fighting unfair competitive advantages from people dumping steel and rebar especially from Turkey into our district for a long time.”
Both Castillo and Bishop agreed that the legislative branch should take over the job of levying tariffs — a power it had given up, Bishop said, long before he arrived.
Bridging a growing divide
Eliason said the main reason he’s running for Congress is to address growing division and hostility along partisan lines.
“That is why I’m running as a United Utah candidate that’s there in the center, and hopefully I can bridge some of those gaps,” he said, promising to work with both sides of the aisle, if elected.
He said he would start by joining the Problem Solvers Caucus, he said, a group of 24 Republicans and 24 Democrats who meet once a week to see where they have common ground and begin developing bipartisan legislation.
Castillo also critiqued the divide in Congress but said he’d look at taking a more systemic approach to solving the problem.
“Term limits come to mind,” he said, in what appeared to also be a subtle jab at Bishop. “I think the problem that we have are career politicians. We need to implement term limits because people get so comfortable in Washington that they are not willing to work across the aisle.”
Bishop, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said “Washington sucks” but that the divide in Congress isn’t as bad as it seems. His committee, for example, has passed 220 bills over the last few years, he said — a third of which were proposed by Democrats.
“In my committee we have reached across the aisle and we are working together and you will never hear about that, because people working together and actually passing things — which does happen all the time — doesn’t sell papers and it doesn’t sell air space," he said. "You hear the conflicts. It’s not as bad as what you see.”
Correction: Oct. 18, 2:30 p.m. >> A previous version of this story misattributed a quote expressing doubt about Rep. Rob Bishop’s statement that campaign donations don’t affect his votes. Democrat Lee Castillo made that statement.