Republican Burgess Owens, a former NFL player and first-time political candidate, will represent Utah’s 4th Congressional District in Congress next year, wresting the seat from Democratic control after a close race with incumbent Rep. Ben McAdams.
McAdams conceded the contest in a virtual news conference Monday afternoon, after it became clear late last week that Owens had built a small but insurmountable lead in the final days of ballot counting.
“Today, I called Burgess Owens to congratulate him on winning this hard-fought and close race," McAdams said. "My campaign was centered around a rejection of extremism and the need for leaders that will put the needs of the people they represent before any political party. I’m deeply humbled by the support I received from so many Utahns who share that vision and want you to know that while we did not prevail, I remain committed to that ideal.”
He was Utah’s first one-term member of Congress in more than 20 years. The last incumbent to serve only a single two-year term was Rep. Enid Greene, who did not seek reelection in 1996 after a campaign finance scandal.
Despite criticisms from the Owens campaign that he was too liberal for the seat, McAdams modeled himself as a middle-of-the-road Democrat and worked throughout the race 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.
Owens, who ran a Trump-style campaign in the race, worked to appeal primarily to conservative voters and came under fire for his characterizations of the leadership of the Democratic Party as “narcissists and sociopaths” who “have no empathy for anyone else.”
Speaking from Washington, D.C., on Monday, McAdams offered Owens his support, promising a smooth transition and that he would continue to work for Utahns in the last weeks of his term in Congress.
“I love this country," McAdams added. "I love the fact that both the great grandson of a slave [Owens] and the son of a single mother elementary school teacher [McAdams] can run for office in this great country. Neither of us comes from money or power. We have differences in political philosophy and how we approach public service. But we both love our country.”
Owens is the second Black Republican elected to Congress from Utah and will become one of two new elected officials in Utah’s six-member congressional delegation come January. He joins businessman Blake Moore, who will replace nine-term retiring GOP Rep. Rob Bishop, as the other new face in Washington.
In addressing his victory on Twitter on Monday, Owens noted that he’d received a call from McAdams, who “expressed appreciation for the opportunity to serve #UT04 and his commitment to a smooth transition.”
“My sincere thanks to him for both," Owens wrote. “Thank you my fellow Utahns, I am committed to have an open ear to serve you. Thank you for the opportunity.”
Owens' campaign did not respond Monday to a request from The Salt Lake Tribune for further comment.
McAdams' concession caps nearly two weeks of ballot counting in the race, which remained too close to call long after most other contests in the state. The competition has remained close throughout, and at one point the candidates were separated by just 18 votes. While McAdams had an early lead on Election Day, Owens overtook him last week and has remained the top vote-getter since then.
The Republican widened his lead again slightly Monday, bringing in 47.5% of the vote to McAdams' 46.93% — a 2,139 vote gap. Overall, Owens brought in more than 177,000 votes, while McAdams notched just over 175,000.
The official canvass is Tuesday.
During his news conference, McAdams praised the state’s “incredible," record-breaking voter turnout — something he also seemed to credit his loss to, at least in part.
“In a district that is 14% Democrat, when turnout goes up by 30%," he said, “those numbers are daunting."
McAdams said he wasn’t sure whether his vote to impeach President Donald Trump had played any role in the outcome of the election. But he stood by that decision Monday, saying that what the commander in chief had done in soliciting a foreign leader to investigate his election rival “was wrong and he needed to be held accountable for actions that I think weakened our country and jeopardized our national security.”
The outgoing congressman did say, though, that he thought his race was affected by criticisms from his opponent pegging him as a socialist and concerns among Utahns about the left-wing trajectory of the Democratic Party.
“My campaign had me focusing on those voters we had identified as undecided, and that’s who I was reaching out to," he noted. “And they said, ‘We love you, we appreciate the work you’re doing, we know you are a centrist, but we are concerned about the Democratic Party.’ ”
His message for the national party, he said, “is we need centrist, free market approaches to solving our greatest challenges if we want to win districts like mine.”
Congratulations began pouring in for Owens on Friday and Saturday, including from Trump, after The Tribune described him as the apparent winner of the race.
“Great going Burgess, you continue to be a STAR!” the president tweeted.
Former Rep. Mia Love, bested by McAdams for the seat in a close 2018 race, offered her congratulations to Owens on Monday. At the same time, she served up a backhand insult to her one-time rival, whom she had denounced during her bitter concession speech as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Owens' “integrity, leadership, selflessness, and honor are admirable,” she said on Twitter Monday, “and will make a desperately needed return to our great Congressional District.”
The race for Utah’s 4th District was 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, most of it from outside groups. 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.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, which said it spent more than $4.1 million in support of Owens, also congratulated him Monday on his victory.
“From his Super Bowl Championship, to his victory in this hard-fought campaign, two things about Burgess Owens never changed: his commitment to his faith and dedication to fight to the end,” CLF President Dan Conston said in a written statement. “I congratulate Burgess on his win, and CLF is proud to have gone all in to support a candidate as compelling as him.”
Owens will become the fourth person to represent Utah’s 4th Congressional District since the seat was created in 2012. That level of turnover is rare in Utah, although it’s not that uncommon elsewhere. A total of 12 seats nationally have changed hands at least four times, according to Smart Politics.
Utah’s musical chairs in the 4th District will also mean it has flipped partisan control four times: Starting with Democrat Jim Matheson, then Mia Love, followed by McAdams and finally, Owens.
As he prepares to step down, McAdams said his hope for Owens “is that he will work to heal our country, to recognize that there are people across the political spectrum who love this country.”
“We have different political philosophies but we all love this country," he said, “and the only way we are going to heal and to rise to the challenges that we’re facing as a country right now is if we come together."
— Tribune reporter Bryan Schott contributed to this report.