Ben McAdams and Burgess Owens each strive to define his opponent as an extremist in the only 4th Congressional District debate

(Kristin Murphy | Deseret News/pool) Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, participates in the 4th Congressional District debate with his Republican challenger Burgess Owens, not pictured, at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

Rep. Ben McAdams, Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, attempted again and again during the 4th Congressional District’s first and only debate on Monday to position himself as a centrist Democrat who works across the aisle to get things done for the Beehive State.

His opponent struck a different tone.

During the hourlong debate, organized by the Utah Debate Commission, Republican candidate Burgess Owens said the other side uses “misery as a political tool" and said he stood by his past comments characterizing the leadership of the Democratic Party as “narcissists and sociopaths" who “have no empathy for anyone else.”

Owens, a frequent Fox News commentator who has aligned himself with President Donald Trump throughout the race, said he has friends on “both sides of the aisle." But he said the American people also have to recognize that “there’s truly an enemy at our door.”

“There are people in leadership of Democratic Party [who] do not have the same end game we have, guys," he concluded. "They want to take away our rights for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and it’s important to recognize that. If my opponent thinks he can kind of go along and just be OK with that, then he’s been complicit.”

McAdams characterized Owens' words about his party as “troubling” and said they reflected “a clear distinction" between the two candidates.

“I think if we’re going to heal what’s broken in Washington — and we know it’s broken — we don’t need name-calling and finger-pointing," he said. "We need listening and people that realize we have so much more in common than what divides us. And that’s how I’ve served and how I’ll continue to serve.”

This year’s election between McAdams and Owens is expected to be among the most competitive in the nation. McAdams won his seat in 2018 by a margin of fewer than 700 votes against two-term incumbent Republican Rep. Mia Love, and recent polling has indicated this will be a close race as well.

McAdams' comments Monday reflect the reality that in order to retain his seat, he will likely need the support of some conservatives and many independents in the swing district, which leans Republican but has a high number of moderates as it straddles Salt Lake and Utah counties.

Owens, on the other hand, appears to be counting on the strong conservative vote to carry him through.

Despite McAdams' characterization of his bipartisanship in Congress, Owens took the opportunity during the debate Monday to again criticize his opponent as being too far left for the district, citing numbers that show the candidate has voted with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi more than 80% of the time, “which means 84% against District 4,” he said.

Owens also took aim at McAdams' vote to impeach Trump at a time of “the lowest unemployment in the history of mankind."

“He’s not voting for the district; he’s voting for the Pelosi plan," Owens said.

By some measures, McAdams is one of the most moderate Democrats in the House. And one of his first votes in Congress was to oppose Pelosi’s bid for speaker.

Owens and McAdams tangled Monday over the issue of protecting health care access for preexisting conditions if the United States Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage to patients with such health histories and from charging them high rates.

Owens, who expressed support for reforming the decade-old health care law, said that removing protections for the roughly 133 million Americans with preexisting conditions is “off the table.”

“Both sides of the aisle agree that’s a good part of the Obamacare Act,” he said.

McAdams, who expressed concerns that Republicans will wipe out the Affordable Care Act, along with its protection for patients with preexisting conditions, accused Owens of flip-flopping on the issue, noting that the candidate’s website had previously expressed a different view.

“I’m glad to hear my opponent, Mr. Owens, talk about the need to protect people with preexisting conditions," he said. "But Mr. Owens, your website, up until three weeks ago, talked about removing protections for people with preexisting conditions and that’s troubling for me, because I know a lot of people who rely on those protections for their life-sustaining medicine.”

Owens disputed that and said McAdams was using the issue as a way to sow “fear” among voters.

“If I saw that on my website I would be concerned, too. It never said that, friends,” he fired back. “I’m a cancer survivor. I understand what preexisting conditions [are] all about.”

An archived version of his website shows that Owens had previously supported “fully” repealing the Affordable Care Act “so we can take a new approach to the issue.” The site now says that “Obamacare no longer needs to be repealed, but changes are necessary in the current health care plan.”

The Trump administration has joined a court challenge to the Affordable Care Act, which seeks to strike it down as unconstitutional.

During the debate Monday, Owens was also put on the defensive in answering a question about campaign appearances tied to the fringe QAnon conspiracy theory.

The candidate, who first participated in a show connected with the far-right ideology this summer and was a guest on a separate show connected to QAnon last month, again repeated a previous claim that he doesn’t “know what QAnon means or what they’re all about.”

“It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t reflect what I’m doing right now,” he added.

McAdams noted that QAnon has been labeled by the FBI as “a dangerous conspiracy theory" and criticized Owens for a “pattern of bad judgment.”

“Mr. Owens, you appeared on that show, a QAnon show, once and said you didn’t know what it was and you said you’d have to Google it,” he said. “Well, a few months later you went back on another QAnon show and again, you just said tonight you’re not sure what it is. At what point are you responsible for the decisions you make?"

While the debate presented the opportunity for voters to see the daylight between the two candidates on a number of issues, there was at least one thing they both appeared to agree on: opposition to a statewide mask mandate.

McAdams, who commended Herbert’s leadership on the coronavirus in Utah, didn’t answer the question outright but encouraged Utahns to “take responsibility for our actions and help do our part to help slow the spread of the virus and protect those who might be vulnerable.”

The congressman noted that he was hospitalized with the coronavirus in early March and said he continues to wear a mask — even though he has antibodies that should provide some level of protection — because he recognizes the seriousness of the virus.

Owens, who was more explicit in his opposition to a statewide mandate, also used the language of “personal responsibility" to make his case and said requirements should be left to businesses.

During his remarks on the pandemic, Owens appeared to insinuate that cities in blue states did not “deserve” and should not receive any federal relief aid, “because of the way they have dealt with things in the past" in regards to spending — comments that appeared to align with Trump’s suggestion in May that increased federal coronavirus aid should be given to cities and states that had adopted policies in line with the Trump administration’s.

In remarks to reporters after the debate, Owens said that “every American should get COVID money" and said he was talking about nonpandemic-related federal dollars that could be snuck into a relief package to “bail out” blue cities and states.

The election between McAdams and Owens will take place on Nov. 3, with ballots mailed out to voters this week — and election officials encouraging voters to fill them out and return them early. Ballots can be postmarked no later than Nov. 2 to be counted.