Democrat Ben McAdams walks a political tightrope in a district that leans Republican

(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.

Since he was elected as Utah’s only Democratic member of Congress by a tiny margin in 2018, Rep. Ben McAdams has been aiming to walk a moderate tightrope, torn between — as he put it at a recent debate — the liberals who think he’s too conservative and the conservatives who think he’s too liberal.

But the first-time congressman appears to see that as part of his appeal. And he’s leaned into the depiction of himself as a kind of Goldilocks candidate as he runs again to represent the moderate, though Republican-leaning, voters in Utah’s 4th Congressional District in a close contest against Republican Burgess Owens.

“I work across the aisle and I don’t hesitate to stand alone if that’s in the best interest of Utah,” he said in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “People know my record; they know what I stand for. For me, it’s about finding solutions and working with anybody who’s willing to work beside me to find solutions to our challenges. That’s who I’ve been in Congress.”

Owens, though, has pushed back hard on McAdams' portrayal of himself as a moderate who’s loyal to people over partisanship. Instead, the Republican has aimed throughout the race to paint his opponent as a Democratic loyalist who’s in lockstep with the most progressive members of his party.

“As much as my opponent talks about going across the aisle, we have to recognize 85% he is voting for the leadership of the Democratic Party,” Owens said at a debate last week, pointing to an online tool by ProPublica that shows how often a House member votes with any other member.

McAdams has faced similar accusations about his true ideological standings in a series of hard-hitting ads by Republican political action committees that assert he only claims to be a moderate.

One — from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely associated with House GOP leaders — depicts McAdams as a child in a suit, playing “follow the leader” around a playground.

“Ben McAdams promised to walk his own path but fell right in line when he got to D.C.,” the ad states, arguing that he “follows” Pelosi’s agenda with his votes.

“That’s out of line for Utah,” the segment concludes.

The idea that he’s out of touch with his district is likely a familiar criticism to McAdams, seeing as he employed the same tactic in his 2018 campaign against the Republican incumbent, Rep. Mia Love. During that race, he criticized her for putting party first and pointed to statistics indicating that she voted with President Donald Trump more than 90% of the time.

Love, who has endorsed Owens in the 4th Congressional District race, now says she sees McAdams as disingenuous for criticizing her votes with the president but not holding himself accountable for voting so often with his own party.

“It’s unfortunate because there was a hope in me that he would be more moderate, but let’s be completely honest, OK?" she said in an interview. “He voted with Nancy Pelosi 85% of the time — the same Ben McAdams that criticized me for voting with the president 80% of the time.”

If he was “really committed to Utah values and being bipartisan,” she argued, McAdams' voting record would look more like voting with Democrats half of the time and voting with Republicans the other half.

The ProPublica analysis shows that McAdams has voted 44% of the time the same way as Rep. John Curtis, 43% of the time with Utah Rep. Chris Stewart and 41% with Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah’s Republican House members.

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said claims about a candidate’s independence are often “in the eye of the beholder.”

But he said that the analysis of McAdams' voting record as it compares to Pelosi’s isn’t as meaningful as it sounds.

“When you see this criticism, ‘Oh he’s voting with Nancy Pelosi all these times,’ all that’s really saying is he’s generally voting with the majority of people in the House of Representatives,” which Democrats have had control over since McAdams was elected in 2018, Burbank said. “In the world of politics, we often simplify and one of the ways we simplify is anything he voted yes on we label as supporting Nancy Pelosi. The reality there is a bit more complex.”

By some measures, McAdams ranks as one of the more moderate lawmakers in the U.S. Capitol. He’s rated as the 13th most conservative Democrat in the House on an “ideology score” by GovTrack that is not based on votes, but instead on legislation that members sponsor or co-sponsor.

And a FiveThirtyEight.com analysis shows that he votes for positions favored by Trump 20.2% of the time — the second most often of any House Democrat, behind only Rep. Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., one of the founders of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, of which McAdams is a member.

Taken together, McAdams argues, “the facts just don’t stack up to the misleading narrative” that he’s not a moderate.

“The facts, objective facts," he said, “clearly show I am independent and will always put Utah first.”

‘Look at my record’

As part of his effort to convince voters that he’s kept his promise to serve as an independent voice for Utah in Congress, McAdams urges Utahns to “look at my record.”

One of his first acts as a new congressman was to vote against Pelosi for House speaker, breaking with his party to fulfill a promise he’d made on the campaign trail.

Over the next two years, McAdams points out that he helped halt a pay raise for members of Congress and has joined with like-minded moderate Democrats to urge his party toward the center. Along with his membership in the Blue Dog Democrats, McAdams is also involved in the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers that seeks to break gridlock in Washington.

“I’ll tell you one thing I’ve learned through that is that there are good people in both political parties, and there are good ideas in both political parties,” he said at a recent debate with Owens. “And I think the more we listen and talk to each other, the more we can come together to address our challenges like this pandemic, like jobs and the economy.”

In the most recent example of defiance against his party, McAdams was one of 18 Democrats who joined all House Republicans to oppose the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill. It passed anyway by a close margin but with virtually no chance of gaining approval in the Republican-led Senate.

While McAdams often points to those instances in which he broke with his own party, he’s also made some more precarious moves for a freshman Democrat from a Republican state, such as his vote earlier this year to impeach Trump.

It was a decision that was quickly criticized by Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager, who said McAdams had chosen “Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats' unhinged caucus over his constituents.”

“Voters won’t forget his cowardice,” she said at the time. “McAdams' political career is over.”

Owens has also criticized McAdams' decision to impeach the president, saying at last week’s debate that his opponent’s vote came “at a time when our country has the lowest unemployment in the history of mankind.”

“At that same time they’re impeaching a president that was giving us that,” Owens, an unwavering Trump supporter, said. “... We realize he’s not voting for the district; he’s voting for the Pelosi plan.”

McAdams stood by his vote during his one and only debate with Owens, saying he thought the president’s effort to solicit election assistance from Ukraine “was wrong.”

“I also do not hesitate to criticize the way the Democrats handled that process," he said. “I think it was also wrong and also overly partisan.”

(Kristin Murphy | Deseret News via AP, pool file photo) 4th Congressional District Republican candidate Burgess Owens, right and Democratic Utah Congressman Ben McAdams debate on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

Trying to ‘hold onto his seat’

Although the impeachment trial happened this spring, it likely feels like a lifetime ago for many Americans as they weigh their votes, Burbank, the U. professor, said. The issue has been wholly eclipsed by a range of other issues, including the coronavirus pandemic, protests against police brutality and a new battle over the Supreme Court.

“It’s entirely possible politically that that could have been the big vote that was a real problem for him,” Burbank said. “But I think for most voters, they’re way past that whole debate.”

He said voters will likely be similarly unimpressed by McAdams' vote against Pelosi as speaker, a move he said was “completely contrived.”

“Nancy Pelosi was going to be elected," he said. “It didn’t matter how McAdams voted.”

Still, Burbank said McAdams' efforts to paint himself as a moderate will be important as he heads into next month’s election. The candidate barely squeaked by a win in 2018, and the political scientist said he will need to engage a broad coalition of Democrats, independents and some crossover Republicans to be successful next month.

“If he can do that," Burbank said, “he may be able to hold onto that seat.”

In making his pitch to those voters, McAdams argues that in him they will have someone who “will always put the interests of Utah first,” pointing to his efforts to stand against Trump administration discussions to restart nuclear testing and promising to oppose proposals that are bad for Utahns, no matter who sits in the Oval Office.

But in his commitment to work across the aisle above all, he said there’s a “clear distinction” between him and his opponent, who has characterized the leadership of the Democratic Party as “narcissists and sociopaths” who “have no empathy for anyone else.”

And he argues his way — teetering in the middle of a partisan tightrope — is the one that will elicit the best results for voters in the 4th Congressional District.

“The only way you’re going to get things done in a divided Washington is by building coalitions on both sides of the aisle,” McAdams said. “That’s something I’ve always prioritized, and I think it’s to Utah’s benefit.”