Owens takes the lead over McAdams in tight 4th Congressional District race

4th Congressional District Republican candidate Burgess Owens, right and Democratic Utah Congressman Ben McAdams bump elbows following a debate on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (Kristin Murphy/ Deseret News, via AP, Pool)

Republican Burgess Owens took the lead for the first time over incumbent Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams in Utah’s close 4th Congressional District race after new ballots were released Thursday.

The candidates are now separated by 2,284 votes, and it could be days or weeks before a clear winner emerges.

Earlier in the day, with new results coming just from Utah County, Owens had a slightly larger lead of 2,403 votes. But that margin shrank to just 18 votes once Salt Lake County dropped its ballots. Later in the day, another ballot drop from Utah County edged Owens up again.

He now has 47.99% of the ballot cast, with more than 132,600 votes, to McAdams' 47.16%, with more than 130,300 votes.

McAdams had previously been ahead since Election Day, when unofficial counts showed him with 49.5% of the vote to Owens' 46%. The gap between them narrowed on Wednesday to a mere 2,600 votes with McAdams in the lead before shrinking and flipping to Owens.

But Andrew Roberts, McAdams' campaign manager, struck a patient tone on Thursday afternoon despite the shift.

“This has been and continues to be a close race," he said in a written statement. "We’ve seen these numbers go back and forth before, as additional votes are tallied. We appreciate the careful and thorough job performed by Utah’s election clerks and we remain confident that Ben will ultimately prevail.”

The election between McAdams and Owens has long been expected to be one of the most competitive in the nation, based both on polling and the margin with which the Democrat wrested the seat from Republican control two years ago.

That nail-biter race between him and Republican incumbent Rep. Mia Love lasted until the final canvass that takes place two weeks after ballots are cast. When the dust had settled, he’d won by fewer than 700 votes, spurred along by a number of high-profile ballot initiatives that turned out more Democratic voters.

Owens' campaign reiterated Thursday that it had also expected this to be a close race.

“We’re very excited to see more ballots start rolling in,” campaign spokesman Jesse Ranney said in a statement.

The 4th District straddles Salt Lake and Utah counties and also includes portions of the much smaller Juab and Sanpete counties. Owens, a frequent Fox News commentator and former NFL player, has performed better in the latter three counties. McAdams has taken a higher percentage of the votes in Salt Lake County, which has more Democrats and more moderate voters and where he used to serve as county mayor.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said Thursday that there were about 160,000 ballots remaining to be counted there, but it’s not clear how many of those were cast in the race between Owens and McAdams.

There are about 3,000 ballots left outstanding in Utah County in the 4th Congressional District.

Tim Chambless, a political science professor at the University of Utah, noted that Salt Lake County makes up about 85% of the district and Utah County just 11%. With the likelihood for more outstanding ballots to be counted in Salt Lake County than in its southern neighbor, he said he would expect to see McAdams pull ahead again in the coming days.

“I have to imagine that Burgess is going to do very very well in Utah County but that’s only 11% of the district,” Chambless said. “I don’t gamble but if I were to gamble I would say that Ben’s probably going to hold on — and it may very well be like it was two years ago when he was less than 1,000 votes over Mia.”

On Thursday, McAdams had 54% of the vote in Salt Lake County while Owens had 41%. In Utah County, Owens brought in around 67% of votes to McAdams' 27%.

More ballots are expected to be released in the race Friday afternoon.

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