Utah’s 3rd Congressional District race — between incumbent Republican Rep. John Curtis and Democrat Devin Thorpe — is a bit unusual.
Both candidates have switched parties during their careers.
Both call for action on climate change as perhaps their lead issue.
Thorpe does not live in the district. And Curtis faces questions about whether he stretches the truth in ads.
A key to many facets of the race is that Republican Curtis was once a Democrat, and Democrat Thorpe is a former Republican. That leads to some unusual stances and history.
Democrat to Republican
Curtis, a former Provo mayor who has served in Congress since 2017 and is even a direct descendant of Brigham Young (“Aren’t we all” in Utah, he jokes), grew up in a conservative home in Utah. After working in other states for a decade for the O.C. Tanner jewelry company, he returned, and his politics took a twist for a time.
He found that Utah County was “too overwhelmingly Republican even for Republicans.” He figured some competition would be healthy, so he became a conservative Democrat.
He and allies “changed the Ted Kennedy Democratic platform in pretty radical ways,” he says, including altering the local county platform to oppose abortion and support gun rights.
Curtis ran as a Democrat for the state Senate asking people to set aside party stereotypes. “It just was not a message that resonated,” he says. Curtis lost and returned to the GOP fold as the best way to push his ideas — but his short dalliance as a Democrat hurt him later.
For example, he convinced GOP delegates to award him majority support (by one vote) to fill a legislative vacancy, but the governor at the time appointed the second-place finisher anyway amid questions about Curtis' party loyalty.
After serving in the nonpartisan post of Provo mayor, he ran in a 2017 special election for Congress. Enough opposition still lingered from his once being a Democrat among delegates that he finished well out of the running in the GOP convention. But he qualified for the ballot by collecting signatures, easily winning the primary and general election — as he has in primary and general elections since.
Republican to Democrat
Provo native Devin Thorpe’s story involves a political conversion in the opposite direction.
“I was a passionate card-carrying Republican — and have repented.” He was even an aide in Washington, D.C., to former Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah. He gives that senator some unusual credit for part of his move toward becoming a Democrat.
“He worked in very bipartisan way,” during a time of extreme partisanship, Thorpe says, adding that Washington is even more divided now. But he said the approach helped Garn get things done and opened Thorpe’s eyes to the power of listening to both sides.
Thorpe’s move toward Democrats accelerated as they pushed health care reform — something he saw as good for business by relieving administrative costs and responsibilities, even though most Republicans did not.
“That really began a process of thinking about where I stand on issues and opening my mind to alternative thoughts,” he said. “And here I am, a committed Democrat.”
He became a best-selling author writing financial planning books and became a regular contributor to Forbes. His best-known book is “Your Mark on the World,” with “stories about service that show us how to give more with a purpose without giving up what’s most important.”
He used that to launch a website and podcast with the same name. He said he realized one day — after interviewing Bill Gates for his show — that he had gone as far as he could with that operation toward improving the world and felt he could do more in politics.
“I began to look for opportunities to do more good, to have more impact. And I finally decided to run for Congress in January after the impeachment trial, and I saw Mitt Romney’s vote” as the only Republican to vote against President Donald Trump. He believes Washington needs more people with courage.
Serving in Congress “would give me an opportunity to work on climate change and poverty and global health — which suddenly became much more relevant in March,” he said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic.
The party switching by the candidates leads to some unusual policy stands — including both listing climate change as perhaps their top issue.
Curtis recently called on fellow Republicans to stop calling climate change a hoax and warned the party will lose the entire younger generation over that issue if it does not address it. He also called on the left to stop “shaming” Republicans on the issue, and to moderate extremist stands.
He notes that he recently found himself as the only Republican, surrounded by Democrats, at a conference on climate change sponsored by the Aspen Institute. “I was literally the [GOP] elephant in the room.”
Thorpe, meanwhile, says, “I suspect that our honest views on climate change differ only slightly. But I believe that his voting record demonstrates that he is a captive to his party and his president. He has never voted for a law or bill that would reduce carbon emissions.”
Thorpe said he would push incentives for electric cars, rooftop solar, utility-scale solar and wind to address climate change. He says creating more clean energy jobs would boost the economy in the current coronavirus recession.
Curtis says that his votes criticized by Thorpe were against “gotcha” Democratic bills designed not to do much besides provide campaign talking points. He said he is working on bipartisan bills, and says as mayor he helped develop the Provo Clean Air Toolkit to show individuals and groups how to take steps to help reduce emissions.
The candidates differ strongly on support of Trump, although both offer him some praise and criticism.
“President Trump captured a feeling that resonated with a lot of people,” Thorpe said, noting that he made people who felt they’d been forgotten believe they were finally being heard. “I find that deeply ironic because he has nothing in common with an out of work steelworker.”
Thorpe adds, “His behavior as president has proven over and over again that he is not qualified for that office.”
By contrast, Thorpe said that back in the days when he was a Republican, he watched Joe Biden up close in the Senate, and felt even then that “he is a deeply good human being.”
Thorpe, a returned Latter-day Saint missionary to Argentina (Curtis served as a missionary in Taiwan), adds he admires how “Joe Biden’s faith has persisted despite great personal adversity. And I think adversity is something that many Utahns feel like they relate to.”
Meanwhile, Curtis says he didn’t vote for Trump four years ago — and wrote in the name of a friend instead “as my little protest” — but will support him this year. While he dislikes the president’s style, he says they often agree on policy. He said he voted against issuing articles of impeachment because he says Democrats did not prove their case.
“There’s never been a president of the United States that I was 100 percent with,” Curtis said. “I analyze everything he does in the sense of whether it is in harmony with the district. When it is, I’m right there behind him and supporting him. When it’s not, I’m among the first to speak up.”
He said he doesn’t speak up on everything “because that’s all we would do.” But he said he was able to look Trump in the eye after a GOP caucus to tell him that holding immigrant children in detention centers is wrong, and not supported by his district.
Curtis votes with Trump 95.1% of the time, right in line with other Utah Republicans in the House, according to the political statistics website FiveThirtyEight.
Living outside the district
Both candidates have taken some actions that may raise the eyebrows of voters.
For example, Thorpe lives in downtown Salt Lake City, about eight miles outside the nearest boundary of the 3rd Congressional District in which he is running.
“I have deep roots in the district,” including being born there and living there off and on through the years, he said. “I care about the things that people there care about.”
The Constitution does not require members of Congress to live in their district, only in the same state. Living outside the district was once considered political suicide, but in recent years former Reps. Jim Matheson (Democrat) and Jason Chaffetz (Republican) lived outside their districts for a time.
So does current Rep. Ben McAdams and his Republican opponent in the 4th District, Burgess Owens, plus 1st District GOP nominee Blake Moore.
“I think I’m the only one running that lives in his district,” Curtis joked when asked about Thorpe not living in the district.
“To me, it is very important to live in a district that you represent,” he said. “How else do you really know who they are and represent them?”
Stretching the truth?
Curtis produced a humorous TV ad this year, which is still online, that appears to have stretched the truth about his accomplishments. But he disputes that.
The ad says he passed six bills into law. It starts listing some, including the Rural Broadband Permitting Efficiency Act. The ad shows Curtis stepping in cow pies in a pasture as he helps to string cable in rural areas for the internet as supposedly allowed by that bill.
However, Curtis acknowledges the bill never passed Congress (just the House). He contends wording of the ad “tried not to make that sound like one of the bills we passed,” but it is in the middle of a list of legislation that it says he enacted.
Later, the ad also says he “passed the most sweeping land bill in decades” as it pictures a Salt Lake Tribune story about passage of an omnibus bill that congressional leaders cobbled together from scores of individual public lands bills. Curtis did not sponsor that overall bill, nor was he among the congressional leaders that shepherded it to passage.
Curtis had pushed a bill that was included in it, outlining new wilderness protection in Emery County.
“We’ve never tried to take credit” for the larger omnibus bill, Curtis said. “We were referring to the Emery County Public Lands Act.”
Campaigns and strategy
The 3rd District is overwhelmingly Republican and has not elected a Democrat since 1994, when its size and shape were quite different. And Curtis now has nine times as much campaign cash in hand as does Thorpe, according to the latest disclosure reports, about $219,000 to $24,000. Both say they plan TV and other ads as needed.
Thorpe criticizes Curtis for raising most of his money from political action committees. “The last I checked, 57% of his money came from PACs and less than 1% from small donors. My funding is almost exactly the opposite of that,” he said. “I support broad campaign finance reform ... to make sure that individuals’ voices are heard and not overwhelmed by corporate money.”
Curtis replied, “That’s the criticism of almost everybody who’s run for Congress who’s not an incumbent. I have no embarrassment about my disclosures. I raise a lot of money here, and I raise a lot of money in Washington.”
Thorpe said he is running to win — and insists he has a shot, but that it may depend on some help from the minor party candidates in the race: former Republican Thomas G. McNeil of the United Utah Party and Daniel Clyde Cummings of the Constitution Party.
Thorpe says right-wing Republicans who feel Curtis is too moderate for them may support those other candidates — and shave off enough support that Thorpe could win.
Curtis says he’s not worried about that. “I don’t take winning for granted,” he said, and he asks himself, “‘Am I doing the best job for my district that I can possibly do?’ If I am, things will take care of themselves.”
The Utah Debate Commission has scheduled a debate for the 3rd Congressional District on Oct. 15 at 6 p.m. It will be carried by many broadcast media in the state and on the commission’s webpage.