On paper, U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart and his Democratic rival, Kael Weston, have more than a few things in common.
Both have ties to the military — Stewart as a retired Air Force pilot and Weston as a former U.S. State Department emissary to combat zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. They’re also prolific authors, with Stewart penning military techno-thrillers and historical treatises and Weston writing a memoir and numerous op-eds.
But Weston has spent this year driving his truck across the 2nd Congressional District to convince voters that the two men couldn’t be more different, all the way down to their basic definition of patriotism.
He says some fellow Democrats have questioned his campaign strategy, asking him why he’s spending so much of his time in sparsely populated parts of the district that are nearly guaranteed to vote for the incumbent Republican. The former diplomat says he’s driven by curiosity over whether, in an era of bitter partisanship, it’s possible to build inroads in these deep red communities.
“I used to have to bring former Taliban fighters to the table in the State Department role that I had so that they wouldn’t shoot and kill our troops,” Weston, of Salt Lake City, said during a recent debate with Stewart and Libertarian candidate J. Robert Latham. “I never thought that experience would be as important as it is now.”
Stewart, who’s running for his fifth term in Congress, also believes there are profound differences between himself and Weston, emphasizing his beliefs in the fundamental goodness of America, religious freedom and the sanctity of life. His victory will hinge on whether 2nd District voters agree or disagree with him on those conservative principles, he says.
“Those are the things I believe; they’re the things I’ve concluded through my life’s experience that are important,” he said. “And Kael is a Democrat, and he believes other things.”
Polling in the race indicates Stewart is not in danger of losing his seat, with a recent survey giving him a lead of 20 percentage points over Weston, and the incumbent congressman also has a financial edge after raising about three times as much as his Democratic challenger during the election cycle.
With Weston’s emphasis on rural issues and bridge-building, experts say his polling deficit illustrates how difficult it is for Stewart’s challengers to move the needle in the 2nd Congressional District, where constituents tend to be fairly “inelastic” and unlikely to vote across party lines.
James Curry, a University of Utah political science professor, says it might be possible for a Democrat to eke out a win in the district if that person had deep roots and broad name recognition in rural counties and was simultaneously able to energize left-leaning Salt Lake County residents.
“I’m not sure that person even exists,” he said. “But sometimes with congressional districts that are tough to crack, what it takes for the party to overcome the structural disadvantages is finding someone who’s kind of a unicorn like that.”
‘A Grand Canyon apart’
Weston has highlighted his rural roots as he’s campaigned to oust Stewart.
His parents grew up in Milford, a small town in Beaver County, and Weston says he spent many of his childhood summers there. His uncle was a longtime Democratic Beaver County commissioner, and he says many of his relatives still live in rural parts of the state.
He’s also made an effort to reach Republicans in these areas. Some of his first radio ads were placed on the “Sean Hannity Show,” and he’s promised that if elected, he wouldn’t push to redraw the 2nd District to be more favorable to Democrats. Weston has also worked to identify issues that transcend political and geographic divides in the district, which sweeps down the western side of the state from Salt Lake City to St. George.
Rural and urban voters generally have a shared anxiety about the coronavirus pandemic and its economic ripple effects, want a robust U.S. Postal Service and have concerns about nuclear testing, Weston believes.
Shireen Ghorbani, a Salt Lake County councilwoman who ran against Stewart in 2018, said she also found voters across the district worry about their health care and had a sincere desire to reform the nation’s immigration system. And they’re tired of the toxic political climate fostered by President Donald Trump and his supporters, including Stewart, she argues.
Though she lost to Stewart by 56% to 39%, Ghorbani said she believes the 2nd District race is winnable for a Democrat and that Weston is doing the right thing by engaging rural Republicans.
“It’s really important for Democrats to sit down face to face and talk to voters who don’t often get the opportunity to talk to somebody who’s a Democrat about important issues,” she said.
But to Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock, the gap between Democrats and Republicans has grown so large that bridge-building efforts are largely futile.
“It’s like we’re the Grand Canyon apart on everything,” said Pollock, who’s met Weston during some of the candidate’s visits to Garfield County.
Pollock said even if a Democratic congressional candidate did genuinely care about rural voters and agree with their positions, that person couldn’t be trusted to withstand the pressures of Capitol Hill and would almost certainly cave under pressure from party colleagues.
“They run into that buzz saw down there,” he said. “Even if they’re trying to help you, they’re going to get [eaten] alive.”
On the other hand, he said, Stewart has been a steadfast ally for rural Utah during his time in the House. Voters in his community think about issues like public lands, gun rights and abortion when they’re choosing a congressional representative, he said. And Stewart fits the bill.
Josh Ryan, a political science professor at Utah State University, said Weston is smart to focus his campaign on local concerns about COVID-19 and the Postal Service, since he won’t win over Republicans by opposing Stewart on the wedge issues that Pollock listed.
“If you’re trying to unseat an incumbent ... he should try to keep the campaign about local issues, where he can sort of mute those partisan impulses,” Ryan said. “Because if it just comes down to Democrats and Republicans, he’s going to lose.”
Still, as the campaign has unfolded, there’s one intensely polarizing issue that Weston has tackled head-on — Stewart’s relationship with Trump.
During the recent 2nd District debate, Weston recalled that before the 2016 Republican primary, Stewart compared Trump to the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
Since then, the congressman has made an about-face to become a stalwart supporter of the president. Stewart defended Trump during last year’s impeachment hearings, denied the legitimacy of news reports about Trump calling fallen service members “losers” and has repeatedly backed the president in cable television appearances.
“He’s treated it as his job to be Trump’s guy in Utah,” Weston said in a recent interview.
Stewart said he can’t recall why he called Trump “our Mussolini” during the last presidential contest but noted that he made the comment while serving as Utah campaign chairman for unsuccessful GOP contender Marco Rubio. The remark reportedly cost Stewart a chance at becoming director of national intelligence.
However, in an interview, the congressman called it a “lazy argument” to use the comment as an attack against him, since he was far from the only Republican to meet Trump with initial skepticism.
“Over time, I was able to see the president was a true conservative,” said Stewart. “That he cares about America. That he’s going to fight for America and fight for American workers.”
The congressman said polling clearly shows that residents of the 2nd District are solidly behind the president, and Weston doesn’t deny it. In fact, the Democrat says a “safer campaign ... would’ve been for me not to mention Trump as much as I have, I’ll be honest.”
But the Democrat said his focus on the president isn’t a strategic move but a matter of principle, arguing it’s his responsibility to denounce the “poisonous politics” he believes Trump has fostered and Stewart has enabled. This election, he said, is a referendum on Trumpism.
If Trump loses the election, Stewart says he will accept the results, adding that he finds it “unfortunate” that the president didn’t initially commit to a peaceful transfer of power if Joe Biden wins.
“Look, I hope President Trump wins,” Stewart said. “But if he doesn’t, of course I’ll accept the transition of power. I will be there at the inauguration.”