Rep. Chris Stewart defends Trump’s record and his own as Democrat Kael Weston calls for voting both out

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Stewart (R) bumps elbows with Kael Weston (D), at the end of the Utah 2nd Congressional District debate between J. Robert Latham (L), Chris Stewart (R) and Kael Weston (D), at KSL Studio in Salt Lake City, on Monday, October 19, 2020

Rep. Chris Stewart’s Democratic rival tried to equate a vote for the incumbent with a vote for President Donald Trump, as the congressional candidates sparred Monday in the only scheduled debate of the 2nd District race.

During the lively one-hour event hosted by the Utah Debate Commission, Democrat Kael Weston recalled that the Republican congressman once likened Trump to former Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini — then transformed into a stalwart supporter of the president.

“Over the last four years, he has acted as Mussolini’s representative to Utah,” Weston said. “This election, we must fire Trump and his collaborators. Only then can we begin to make America kind and ethical again, respected again, a welcoming country of bridges, not walls.”

Stewart defended both himself and the president from Weston’s attacks as the debate unfolded, arguing that conservative policies will guide the nation into a “future that our children can be proud of.”

Weston and Stewart weren’t alone onstage. They were joined by Libertarian J. Robert Latham, a southern Utah attorney, who pitched himself as a “real choice” in contrast to the “false choice between imperialist party A and imperialist party B.”

Recent polling in the race shows that Stewart has a healthy lead over his rivals, with about 48% of those polled saying they’d vote for the incumbent if the election were held that day. Weston trailed with 28% support, and Latham came in third place with 6.5%, according to the Debate Commission poll conducted between Aug. 31 and Sept. 12. The survey’s margin of error was plus or minus 4.38 percentage points.

In 2018, Stewart beat Democrat Shireen Ghorbani, who’s now serving on the Salt Lake County Council, by 56% to 39%.

Trump and COVID-19

The three-way forum kicked off with a question about the Trump administration’s handling of COVID-19 and whether the federal government has a role in helping states deal with a pandemic.

Weston noted during the debate that the United States has the world’s highest number of COVID-19 deaths, arguing that the president has failed in his responsibility to protect Americans from the disease. Among other things, the former diplomat charged the current administration with eroding the apolitical nature of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and downplaying the severity of the virus despite being fully aware of the danger.

The White House itself, Weston continued, became a “superspreader” location after a Rose Garden event where few people wore masks.

“How many Americans didn’t need to die?” said Weston, who added that his brother and nephews contracted the disease. “How many Americans did not need to get infected?”

Stewart, on the other hand, asserted that the Trump made a bold move early on in the pandemic by restricting travel from China and praised the president for championing the development of a vaccine in record speed. The nation’s pandemic response hasn’t been perfect, the congressman said, but the blame for missteps extends to Democrats, Republicans and state governors, in addition to the president.

“Let’s not politicize virtually everything about this,” Stewart said. “Let’s be able to say, ‘Yeah, you know what? We did some things that were good.’ ”

Latham disagreed with both of his opponents by contending that the federal government doesn’t belong in the pandemic response at all and that bureaucratic rules have only served to hamper efforts to ramp up testing and produce protective masks.

Obamacare repeal

Stewart reiterated his opposition to the Affordable Care Act and said he would vote to overturn the health care law if given the opportunity, as he has done in the past when repeal bills have moved through the House.

However, the incumbent said he’s not supportive of scrapping Obamacare without an alternative, adding that he’d favor an overhaul that drives down health care costs through tort reform and by allowing people to purchase insurance across state lines.

He said that — as someone who’s insured through Obamacare — he knows firsthand how flawed it is.

“I know how bad it is,” he said. “I know how expensive it is. I deal with that every month.”

The personal example drew pushback from Weston, who asserted that many Utahns would love to have access to the type of health coverage that congressional representatives enjoy. Stewart said Weston was simply wrong in suggesting he had access to some elite form of insurance.

“I, as a member of Congress, am on Obamacare," the Republican said.

“It’s just, your package is very different than most,” Weston interjected.

“I choose from the same menu that everyone else does,” Stewart fired back. “There is no special package for Congress members.”

Weston said he also obtains health coverage through Obamacare. Residents in the 2nd District are afraid about what would happen if the Supreme Court overturns the law, he said, pledging that if elected to Congress, he would be “the wall” that would stop efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act.

Latham said he favored the removal of mandates and increasing competition in the insurance marketplace.

“I don’t want the shortages and rationing that comes with any socialized service,” he said. “I want to liberate health care from the politicians and the bureaucrats.”

Packing the Supreme Court

The candidates also staked out their positions on the idea of adding justices to the Supreme Court bench, a move contemplated by some Democrats frustrated by the high court’s increasingly conservative tilt.

Stewart and Latham voiced opposition to efforts to “pack the court,” with the congressman objecting to the fact that the proposal has even entered the discourse.

“Not only am I troubled by it, I think it’s absurd,” he said. “I think it’s one of the most ridiculous and divisive and destructive ideas that have ever been suggested.”

If a Democratic-controlled government expanded the court, Stewart asked, what’s to stop a future Republican administration from doing the same thing? The congressman said such a move would destroy the integrity of the court and called on all Democrats to denounce it.

However, Weston — like Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden — did not give a clear response on the question.

“We need, I believe, to trust the people,” he said. “This would not be an issue if this election could move forward and the will of the American people would be respected."

Speaking to reporters after the debate, the Democrat said that “at this point" he does not support adding justices to the Supreme Court.