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The outside influences that could tip Utah’s 4th District race to Ben McAdams or Burgess Owens

Rep. Ben McAdams and Burgess Owens.

Little things can win a political campaign. They can also lead to an electoral loss.

While it’s impossible to account for every variable, there are some parts of the equation more likely to spell victory for Republican Burgess Owens or Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams in their toss up of a race in Utah’s 4th District. This highly watched congressional race is centered on the western portion of Salt Lake and Utah counties and parts of central Utah. It is conservative, but Democrats have found success.

This is Utah’s only battleground and one of the rare competitive House races in the nation. And in 2020, the tipping point could be third-party candidates, Utah County’s election system or even a national wave.

It’s happened before. Let’s start with the potential impact of other candidates in this race.

The most recent survey found Owens with 46% to McAdams 45%. Libertarian candidate John Molnar got 3% support, while United Utah Party nominee Jonia Broderick sits at 1%. Broderick has suspended her campaign and endorsed McAdams, but Molnar is still an active candidate.

Flashback to election night 2012, when Republican Mia Love was favored to defeat Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson in Utah’s newly-created 4th District.

Matheson switched from the 2nd District, which was gerrymandered in such a way that a Democrat would be at an extreme disadvantage. The 4th, while still GOP friendly, was a better playing field for him. Still, Love was polling ahead of Matheson just days before the election.

On election night, the result was too close to call, and eventually Matheson prevailed by just 768 votes.

Many Republicans blame the presence of Libertarian candidate Jim Vein, who pulled in 6,439 votes, for Love’s narrow loss.

Republican strategist Dave Hansen, who managed Love’s successful campaigns in 2014 and 2016 as well as her narrow 2018 defeat to McAdams, says Owens has ample reason to worry about the Libertarian candidates, who are likely to attract some votes that would otherwise go his way.

Hansen suggests Owens might be able to protect the siphoning of votes from his right flank with a high-profile endorsement from a prominent Libertarian.

“Not all of the Libertarian votes would go to Burgess, probably about 1 to 2%,” said Hansen.

“Owens could boost those numbers with a push,” he added, but it may be too late with about a week to go until Election Day.

Broderick’s endorsement of McAdams might have the same effect, keeping moderate voters in his column.

Of the four elections since the creation of the district, the two Democratic wins have been incredibly close — decided by 768 and 694 votes, respectively. The two GOP wins, both by Love, were much wider.

There was no third-party spoiler in 2018 when McAdams squeaked past Love. Many of her supporters grouse about long lines on election night and election problems in Republican-heavy Utah County as a reason for her narrow defeat. Had Love been able to squeeze just 800 more votes out of Utah County, she’d be finishing her third term in Congress, possibly running for a 4th.

Utah County shouldn’t run into the same problems this year. New County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner says she has remedied many of the issues that plagued past elections.

“We spent a lot of time updating and ensuring that our voter rolls were accurate. There were as many as 20,000 ballots returned undeliverable to us in previous elections,” Gardner said. That’s about 10% of the Utah County ballots. In a close election, that might prove to be decisive.

“We had a ton of people showing up at the polls on Election Day and casting provisional ballots because they never got their ballot because their addresses were wrong,” she said.

Utah County also changed to prepaid postage on ballots; voters previously had to use their own stamps.

Those two changes will make it easier for voters to cast their ballots. In a GOP-heavy area, that should be advantageous to Owens.

Another factor to consider is how the national political environment may affect down-ballot races. In 2018, Utah’s 4th District was thought to be a “reach district” for Democrats, one that would only flip away from the Republicans if the Democratic tide was big enough. Sure enough, the “blue wave” that materialized may have helped McAdams carry the majority Republican district.

This year is again shaping up to be favorable to Democrats. Joe Biden is favored to win the popular vote and the Electoral College over President Donald Trump. Democrats are also slight favorites to win control of the Senate and expand their majority in the House.

Trump is running behind his 2016 election performance in Utah. Right now polling has him up 10 percentage points over Biden after carrying Utah by 18 points four years ago. He’s also far behind other recent Republican nominees. Mitt Romney won the state by 48 points in 2012 and John McCain won by 29 points in 2008.
“My sense is McAdams might be a tiny favorite because of the national environment,” said Dave Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which handicaps close races.

Independent candidate Evan McMullin captured nearly 22% of the Utah vote in 2016, which Wasserman says makes it hard to project what will happen in the state this year.

“It’s tough to gauge because Utah is such a strange case. Trump’s percentage of the vote is going to be much higher than in ’16, but his margin over Biden will likely be smaller than it was over Clinton,” he said.

Outside groups are pouring money into the competitive race that could cost upward of $20 million when all is said and done. Republican-aligned organizations have dropped nearly $5 million in support of Owens and to attack McAdams. That suggests this race in one of the most Republican districts in the nation will be close once again and may tip on one of these factors.
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