SALT LAKE CITY – The mayor in the Mormon stronghold of Provo won a three-way Republican primary Tuesday in the race to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, putting him on track to clinch the congressional seat in the general election in the overwhelming GOP district.
John Curtis pulled off the win despite being dogged by attack ads from deep-pocketed outside groups in a race whose three candidates were emblematic of the divisions roiling the GOP under President Donald Trump.
Curtis is a former Democrat who was the most moderate of the Republican candidates running in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, which Chaffetz represented until June when he abruptly resigned, citing a desire to spend more time with family.
Chaffetz, a five-term Republican, carved out a reputation for using the House Oversight committee he chaired to run aggressive investigations of Hillary Clinton before the 2016 presidential elections. He’s since taken a role as a Fox News commentator and announced he will be one of six visiting fellows at Harvard University this fall.
His departure opened up a congressional seat in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats 5-to-1 in an area that stretches from the Salt Lake City suburbs and several ski towns southeast to Provo and Utah coal country.
Utah’s special election is one of seven this year to fill vacancies in the U.S. House and Senate, five of which opened up when elected officials took posts in Trump’s administration. Voters in Alabama were also voting Tuesday in primaries to select party nominees for the U.S. Senate seat that previously belonged to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Moderate Utah Republicans backed Curtis, the only one of the three Republican candidates who didn’t vote for Trump last year.
Those further to the right split their support behind the other two candidates, Chris Herrod, a former state lawmaker known for strict immigration positions, and Tanner Ainge, a business consultant, first-time candidate and son of Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge.
Out-of-state organizations and political action committees have spent about $900,000 in Utah’s race – on top of about $600,000 in campaign contributions collected by the three Republicans running for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District.
Outside spending of that magnitude is generally only seen in heavily Republican Utah when Democrats and Republicans face off in an occasional close race.
Curtis, the target of most of the out-of-state attack ads, faced suspicion and criticism from some Republicans for his 2000 run as a Democrat for the state Legislature and his time leading a county Democratic party. The 57-year-old identifies today as a conservative Republican and points out that Ronald Reagan, Trump and Chaffetz were all Democrats at one point.
Herrod, 51, and Ainge, 33, both voted for Trump, but all three candidates say they support the president’s agenda – including plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, revamp the tax code and repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Curtis moves on to face a well-funded Democratic opponent who initially jumped in to challenge Chaffetz earlier this year. Kathryn Allen socked away more than half a million dollars after she called out Chaffetz early this year for his comments suggesting people should spend money on health care instead of iPhones.
Several third-party candidates are also running in November, including Jim Bennett, the son of the late former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, a longtime Republican who lost re-election in 2010, the first of several GOP candidates ousted in tea-party fueled wave. Jim Bennett is running as the first candidate of a new centrist party, the United Utah Party.
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