Ben McAdams takes early lead over Burgess Owens in fierce battle for Utah’s 4th District seat

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams, center right, looking to retain his seat for Utah’s 4th Congressional District, keeps an eye on the vote count alongside his wife Julie and campaign manager Andrew Roberts from his small election watch party at Pat’s BBQ in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

Editor’s note: When final votes were counted nearly two weeks after the election, Republican Burgess Owens won the election.

Early results in Utah’s hotly-contested 4th Congressional District race show first-term incumbent Rep. Ben McAdams with a 3.5 percentage-point lead over Republican challenger Burgess Owens.

Unofficial ballot counts released Tuesday night show McAdams with 49.5% of the vote to Owens' 46%. An initial version of results posted on the state’s election website that included only the votes from more conservative Utah County showed McAdams behind, but ballots in Salt Lake County subsequently pushed him ahead.

There are many more ballots to count, including in portions of Sanpete and Juab counties, and it could be days or weeks before a clear winner emerges. Preliminary results showed McAdams had received 109,880 votes in the race and Owens brought in 102,115 as of midnight.

“We’re still analyzing the numbers and looking at the votes and we recognize most of the counties still have numerous precincts that haven’t reported," McAdams told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview on Tuesday night. “It’s too early to make any conclusions but I would say we’re feeling very optimistic."

He did say, however, that he anticipated the race would “tighten up as more votes come in.”

Owens, speaking by phone from a small election night event the Utah GOP held for candidates in Sandy, also expressed optimism late on election night and said he thought new ballots from the more conservative southern portion of the district would weigh in his favor.

“At this point, we’ve pretty much done all we can do on our side," he said. "That’s on both sides of the aisle. We’re now waiting for the voice of the people, the will of the people, to give us the verdict we will respect and move forward with.”

McAdams, Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, won his seat in a nail-biter race in 2018, wresting the office from Republican control with a margin of fewer than 700 votes against two-term incumbent Rep. Mia Love. Polling has indicated that this race would also be close.

A recent survey conducted for the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah and the Deseret News showed a statistical tie between them, with Owens at 46% to McAdams' 45% — a difference well within the poll’s margin of error.

Despite high interest, the closely-watched contest between Owens, a frequent Fox News commentator and former NFL player, and McAdams, the former Salt Lake County mayor, has largely failed to solidify around particular policy issues.

Among the exceptions to that rule has been McAdams' emphasis on blocking nuclear weapons testing as a key issue in his campaign. He’s run several ads on the topic and has criticized his opponent for saying during an interview that he supported President Donald Trump’s reported interest in resuming such efforts, though Owens has since said he would oppose any attempt to do so on Utah soil.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams, looking to retain his seat for Utah’s 4th Congressional District, waves hello as he hands out pre-ordered meals to friends and supporters at Pat’s BBQ in Salt Lake City, as part of his small election night watch party on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

The candidates also sparred during a debate last month over the issue of protecting health care access if Republicans succeed in persuading the United States Supreme Court to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage to patients with preexisting conditions and from charging them high rates.

Owens, who expressed support for reforming the decade-old health care law, said that removing protections for the roughly 133 million Americans with preexisting conditions is “off the table.” But McAdams accused his opponent of flip-flopping on the issue, noting that the Republican’s website had previously expressed a different view.

Following a summer characterized by nationwide protests calling attention to police brutality against people of color, the two candidates have also staked out different positions on race and inequality.

Owens, who is Black, has characterized Black Lives Matter as divisive, and has largely dismissed the idea that people of color face any particular challenges because of their race in modern America. He has also said the idea that the United States is systemically racist is “totally false.”

McAdams, who has been endorsed by Black Lives Matter Utah, has said he sees a need to do more to heal racial tensions and acknowledged that many minorities feel some opportunities have been closed off to them because of their race.

The contest has largely been defined, though, by wall-to-wall attack ads, some of which mark McAdams as too liberal for the district on the one hand and that target Owens for his multiple bankruptcies on the other.

According to figures provided by Advertising Analytics, McAdams, Owens, and outside groups aired ads nearly 3,500 times on broadcast TV and cable television between Oct. 24 and Oct. 30 at a total cost of more than $1.8 million. That works out to an average of 20 commercials per hour, every hour for seven days straight.

Owens, a first-time political candidate, has faced criticism on a number of fronts throughout the race, going on the defensive over questions about the work of his nonprofit, Second Chance 4 Youth, as well as his appearances on programs related to QAnon, a far-right pro-Trump conspiracy theory.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Burgess Owens chats with Aimee Winder Newton, at the Utah Association of Realtors office in Sandy, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

The Republican candidate has repeatedly said he was unaware of QAnon and that he does not believe in its tenets. But McAdams has argued his opponent’s appearances on those shows exhibited a “pattern of bad judgment.”

Candidates in the Republican-leaning but moderate 4th District generally model themselves as middle-of-the-road candidates ready to work across the aisle to accomplish results for Utah. But Owens has largely styled himself after Trump, the norm-defying president who has endorsed him in the race.

Like the president, Owens has come under fire for a number of brazen statements, including his criticisms of Sen. Mitt Romney and characterizations of the leadership of the Democratic Party as “narcissists and sociopaths” who “have no empathy for anyone else.”

He’s also blamed the media for unfair and “biased” coverage of his campaign, which he has said is rooted in values of God, country and family.

While Owens appears to have largely banked on the support of conservative Utahns to get him elected, McAdams has taken a different approach, working to appeal not only to Democrats but also to conservatives and independents in the swing district, which straddles Salt Lake and Utah counties.

He’s pointed to his record in the House to make his case, as well as to measures that show he’s one of the most moderate Democrats in an increasingly partisan Congress.

“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.

But Owens has pushed back on McAdams' characterization of his bipartisanship in Congress, criticizing his opponent as being too far left for the district by citing numbers that show the Democrat has voted with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi more than 80% of the time.

“He’s not voting for the district; he’s voting for the Pelosi plan,” Owens said at last month’s debate.

Owens' strategy of appealing to conservative voters appeared to be working on election night in Utah County, where he had grabbed about 64% of the vote, according to early ballot results. But the Republican candidate fared worse in Salt Lake County, where unofficial counts showed McAdams with 56% to Owens' 40%.

Aside from spats about personality and the candidates’ pasts, the 4th District race also stands out because of its sheer cost. Nearly $19 million has poured into the contest, spurred by outside groups spending 3.5 times more in Utah’s 4th District than they did just two years ago.