Republican Burgess Owens, a former NFL player and frequent Fox News commentator who ran a Trump-style campaign for Utah’s 4th Congressional District, appears to be headed to Congress.
His 2,095-vote lead over Rep. Ben McAdams, the only Democrat in Utah’s federal delegation, looked to be insurmountable on Friday, based on indications that only a few thousand outstanding ballots remained to be counted in the contest.
The official canvass is Tuesday.
President Donald Trump tweeted his congratulations to Owens at 11:08 p.m. Utah time.
“Great going Burgess, you continue to be a STAR!” Trump wrote.
McAdams, a first-term incumbent, took an early lead in the close race on Election Day and held onto it for much of last week, but Owens overtook him Saturday and has remained the top vote getter since then. He had 47.50% of the vote on Friday to McAdams' 46.93%.
The 4th District straddles Salt Lake and Utah counties and also includes portions of the much smaller Juab and Sanpete counties. Owens has performed better in the latter three counties, while McAdams has earned a higher percentage of the votes in Salt Lake County, where he served as county mayor before his election to Congress.
But McAdams has seen his advantage in Salt Lake County dwindle over the past few days. While he was previously averaging about 54% of the vote there, he’d brought in a smaller 51.69% as of Friday. Owens has earned 42.66% of all votes in the county.
In Utah County, McAdams had 26.55% of the vote as of Friday while Owens has brought in 67.07%.
The 2018 race for the 4th Congressional District between McAdams and incumbent Rep. Mia Love was similarly close, lasting until the final canvass that takes place two weeks after the final ballots are cast. McAdams won that contest by fewer than 700 votes, likely spurred along by a number of high-profile ballot initiatives that turned out more Democratic voters.
Unlike in that race, this contest has been complicated by two third-party candidates who have scraped off a small chunk of votes — about 20,000 between them — from the major party contenders. John Molnar, a libertarian, had pulled in 3.40% of the vote as of Friday, while United Utah Party candidate Jonia Broderick had 2.10% of the vote.
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen said Thursday that there was the potential for more than 13,000 ballots to be added to totals countywide, though she wasn’t sure how many of them were from the 4th Congressional District. Most, if not all, of those ballots were added to the vote count Friday afternoon and expanded Owens' lead.
There are also 1,964 “cure” ballots left in Salt Lake County, or those that were mailed or deposited in a drop box without a signature or with a signature that couldn’t be matched with the sample on file. Those won’t necessarily all be counted — and not all are in the 4th District — but voters notified of a problem have until 5 p.m. Monday to resolve the issue.
If Owens' lead holds as those and any remaining ballots in Utah County are counted ahead of the final canvass next week, he will be one of two new members in Utah’s six-member congressional delegation. He would join businessman Blake Moore, who will replace nine-term retiring GOP Rep. Rob Bishop, as the other new face in Washington, D.C. Bishop did not seek reelection.
Neither candidate had responded to a request for comment on the vote totals as of early Friday evening.
Despite the expectation that this would be a close race, the contest in Utah’s 4th District has been defined less by policy issues and more by a barrage of attack ads that dominated the airwaves in the days and weeks leading up to the election and focused largely on each candidate’s past and personality.
The contest was also hugely expensive, with more than $19 million pouring into the race. McAdams had a fundraising advantage as an incumbent, but Owens, a first-time political candidate, proved himself capable of raising huge dollar amounts, as well. As of an October campaign finance deadline, he’d amassed more than $3.2 million in donations.
And the candidate hasn’t stopped fundraising in the days since the election, sending emails alleging that Democrats were attempting to “steal the election” in the 4th District through “shady, last-minute tactics" even though he was ahead in the vote count. His campaign hasn’t, however, been able to cite any specifics and he didn’t make such claims except in the fundraising emails.
Owens faced criticism on a number of fronts throughout the race with McAdams, 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.
The Republican candidate repeatedly said he was unaware of QAnon and that he does not believe in its tenets. But McAdams argued his opponent’s appearances on those shows exhibited a “pattern of bad judgment.”
Owens also came 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.”
McAdams, on the other hand, modeled himself as a middle-of-the-road Democrat and worked to appeal to a broad coalition of Democratic, independent and even some Republican voters. He pointed to his record in the House to make that 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.
Owens pushed back on McAdams' characterization of his bipartisanship in Congress, though, 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.