Stands by candidates who switched parties blur GOP, Democratic lines in 3rd Congressional District debate

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The candidates for Utah's 3rd Congressional District race between Incumbent Republican Rep. John Curtis (left) and Democrat Devin Thorpe (right) for the 3rd District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, debate on Thursday, October 15, 2020.

Both GOP Rep. John Curtis and his Democratic challenger, Devin Thorpe, switched parties as adults. That may help explain some unusual stances in their 3rd Congressional District debate on Thursday, when the line between Republican and Democrat sometimes blurred.

For example, both insisted that climate change is real and must be addressed — although they attacked each other’s approach to the problem.

They both said Republicans and Democrats are more alike than most people realize, which offers opportunities to bridge divides to end polarization in Washington.

They each both attacked and defended portions of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

Following is a look at some of the key issues they discussed in a televised debate sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission:

• Climate change: “Yes, I do believe the climate is changing,” Curtis said, as he lamented that he is among very few Republicans in Congress who acknowledge that.

“I believe I’m the only Republican in the history of the United States who’s actually stood on the House floor with the House in session and told my colleagues that I believe the climate is changing and that man is having an influence over it,” he said.

Thorpe said the problem is that Curtis has taken little real action beyond talk.

“He has never voted for a bill that was designed to reduce carbon emissions. And he has repeatedly voted for bills that increase the use of fossil fuels,” Thorpe said. “We’ve got to act on climate change. And my promise to you tonight is I will deliver the action.”

Curtis said the Democratic bills he opposed on climate change are extremist and were written without consulting Republicans and have no chance of passage in the GOP-controlled Senate. He said they are “message bills … rather than sitting down with Republicans and working across the aisle.”

• Switching parties: Both candidates talked about why they switched parties, and how the experience may help them bridge partisan divides.

Thorpe noted he was even an aide to Republican Utah Sen. Jake Garn before becoming a Democrat.

“My values never changed,” Thorpe said. “I think Republicans and Democrats value and want the same thing. They want a strong economy. They want clean air. ... I will always look for the best solutions wherever I find them. But what I have seen over the last 30 years is that the best solution come oftentimes from Democrats. And that’s why I moved parties.”

Curtis said when he returned from years working out of state, he felt Utah was too dominated by Republicans — so he switched for a time to be a Democrat and ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature. Later, he held the nonpartisan office of Provo mayor and returned to run for Congress as a Republican.

“There are many good things in the Democratic Party,” Curtis said. “I regret that the Democrats beat us to the line on climate. And they’re doing a better job than us on that. And I think you can find things in both parties that are both good and bad.”

He added, “I tend to identify far better with Republican values, particularly the fiscal conservative nature,” and complained that “somehow capitalism to Democrats in Washington has become a bad word. I hear things talked about that are socialist that would have been talked about in the shadows a few years ago, and now they’re shouted from the house tops.”

• Health care: Curtis said he would not vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and says no one realistically is pushing that anymore despite many campaign ads on the air disputing that.

“Republicans tried to repeal. It was unsuccessful. That question is totally off the table,” but he said Republicans are trying to improve it incrementally.

He said no one is trying to repeal the act’s prohibition of not insuring someone because of preexisting conditions. “Let’s face it, Democrats won on this one. It was one of the things in the Affordable Care Act that we have to admit was good.”

Thorpe said the act has great value, and deep flaws that need to be fixed. He said he has an insurance policy through the act — which provide some needed coverage — but the policy he can afford has a huge $12,000 annual deductible.

“Countless people around the country are in the same boat. They’re deferring preventive care, diagnostic care,” he said. “In the tragic event of a cancer or a heart failure, they would literally have to file bankruptcy. No one in this country should have to file bankruptcy with health insurance.”

• Pandemic economic relief: The candidates are divided on what kind of action Congress should take to extend financial relief.

“No action by Congress is actually action,” Curtis said. “Congress has spoken. They’re not ready for additional legislation yet,” adding that Republicans dislike a Democratic proposal to add $600 extra to unemployment benefits meaning the unemployed “make more staying home than going to work.” Curtis said businesses constantly complain about it to him.

Thorpe said, “If inaction is action and people in Utah are suffering, then that’s not the right action,” he said. He said they are suffering and need help.

Thorpe also took shots at all sides for failing to extend financial relief. “The House of Representatives led by the Democrats, the Senate, led by the Republicans and the president have utterly failed,” Thorpe said. “The federal government has really let us down.”

• Minimum wage: Curtis saw potentially raising the minimum wage as not truly needed. “I think you’d have to look long and hard for anybody that was paying $7.25 an hour to anybody trying to sustain a working wage.”

Thorpe retorted, “Congressman, there are millions of people in this country working at or near minimum wage.”

He urged, “We need to move forward and raise the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour,” saying that is truly needed to help people be self-reliant.

The 3rd District is overwhelmingly Republican and has not elected a Democrat since 1994, when its size and shape were much different. A poll released last month by the Utah Debate Commission showed Curtis leading Thorpe by 50.6% to 20.4% margin, with 24% undecided.

Also, campaign finance disclosure forms released Thursday show that Curtis has raised nearly 10 times as much money this cycle as Thorpe: $1.62 million to $164,531. Also, Curtis currently has 18 times as much cash on hand: $353,971 to $19,638.