Utah Republicans will vote on Tuesday in a special primary in the race to succeed former Rep. Jason Chaffetz. Given how solidly Republican the district is, the race is seen as effectively crowning his eventual successor. It has also exposed growing divisions within the GOP over President Trump and the direction of the party.
The three candidates competing in the 3rd Congressional District primary on Aug. 15 are Provo Mayor John Curtis, former state lawmaker Chris Herrod and political newcomer Tanner Ainge, the son of Boston Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge.
Curtis has emerged as a front-runner in the race, holding a double-digit lead in two polls. This has also made him a prime target of his opponents and out-of-state super PACs in the final days of the campaign. Outside groups, mostly opposing Curtis, have poured close to $800,000 into the race.
Considered the most moderate of the three, Curtis is the only candidate who didn't vote for Trump, a fact he's tried to downplay in public forums to court more conservative voters.
"I don't mind telling you I struggled with that presidential election, and in the end I didn't vote for any of the candidates on the ballot," he said during a GOP candidate forum in June. "Because none of them had earned my vote."
Recent mailers from a PAC called Conservative Utah, funded primarily by the Ainge family, have attacked Curtis for his prior political affiliation as a Democrat.
"While I think it's important to work together, I don't think you actually have to switch sides," Ainge said during a July 28 debate in Provo.
Chris Herrod is running to the right of Ainge and Curtis. With endorsements from Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, he's embraced Trump's more hardline views on immigration and voiced skepticism of the special counsel investigation into Russia's election meddling — and whether anyone in the Trump campaign may have colluded with Russia in that effort.
"The collusion argument, I think, has been way overblown," Herrod said.
The race has revealed larger fractures within the Republican Party as candidates tread carefully between supporting the GOP's agenda while distancing themselves from the dysfunction of the current administration.
It's why the candidates have largely avoided talking about Trump and why Ainge and Herrod have instead focused their attention assailing Curtis over his conservative credentials.
Distance from Trump isn't necessarily a shortcoming in the 3rd District, which stretches southeastward from Salt Lake to Provo down to Moab and Blanding, near the site of the controversial Bears Ears National Monument currently under review by the Trump administration.
Voters in the district re-elected Jason Chaffetz by 74 percent last November, while Trump only gained 47 percent of the vote, lower than any recent Republican presidential candidate.
Brad Talk, a 28-year-old who works in tech support, said he wishes there were a candidate more like Chaffetz, whose investigations of the Obama administration made him a household name around the country.
"There's an element of assertiveness [missing], somebody who I feel confident is going to fight for Utah values — and, if need be, somebody who is going to stand up to the president at the appropriate times, which Chaffetz has done," he said.
Jean Lau, another undecided voter from Orem, said she just wants someone who will help Trump stay focused.
"I'd like to see somebody who can get along with him, but at the same time, who can speak up their mind and say, 'This is not good,' " she said.
The winner of the August primary will face Democrat Kathie Allen, a local physician, on Nov. 7. The winner of that contest will serve out the rest of Chaffetz's term.
Chaffetz stepped down on June 30, surprising colleagues and voters, in order to join Fox News as a political commentator.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK. We're also keeping our eye this morning on a special election in the state of Utah. Officially, this is to fill the House seat abandoned by Jason Chaffetz, who resigned last month to join Fox News. But this is really shaping up as a referendum on President Trump. Now, the general election is not until November, but Utah's 3rd District is so deeply red that the GOP primary next Tuesday is the real race here. Julia Ritchey from member station KUER tells us that voters are weighing three candidates with the man in the White House heavy on their minds.
JULIA RITCHEY, BYLINE: It's evening in Provo, an hour south of Salt Lake City. A few dozen people are sitting inside an auditorium. They're here for one of the final debates between the third district's Republican candidates before their primary on August 15. Married couple Jean and Mark Lau are undecided about which candidate to support.
MARK LAU: I would really like to see someone who would stand up to Trump and his crazy tweets and extemporaneous thoughts.
RITCHEY: Mark, who's retired, is like many of his Republican neighbors. He voted to re-elect Jason Chaffetz last November, but he didn't vote for president Trump, who performed poorly here compared to past Republican presidential candidates. Mark's wife, Jean, says she wants someone who can help Trump stay focused.
JEAN LAU: I'd like to see somebody who can get along with him but at the same time who can speak up their mind and say, this is not good.
RITCHEY: That candidate might be John Curtis, the popular mayor of Provo, Utah's third-largest city. He's emerged as a frontrunner in the race. The other two Republican candidates are Chris Herrod, a former state lawmaker and Tanner Ainge, who works in private equity and is the son of Boston Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge. Whoever wins the primary will face Democrat Kathie Allen, a local physician, this November. Branded as the most moderate, Curtis is the only candidate who didn't vote for Trump, a fact he's tried to downplay.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN CURTIS: I would aspire for the exact type of relationship I think that Donald Trump respects, which is good, thoughtful debate. I mean, he's not afraid of a debate, right?
RITCHEY: Ainge and Herrod are running to the right of Curtis and point out he was once a registered Democrat. Herrod has even championed Trump's more hard-line stances on immigration, an unpopular stance here in Utah, where Mormons support higher levels of immigration. And Herrod also supports Trump's claims that his campaign had nothing to do with Russia.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHRIS HERROD: People are tired - at least that I found - tired about talking about Trump and the collusion argument. And so the collusion argument, I think, has been way overblown.
RITCHEY: The candidates here are trying to walk a fine line between supporting a Republican president's agenda while downplaying any potential scandals. Twenty-eight-year-old Brad Talk stood outside the debate hall. He says he still supports Trump, but wishes there were a candidate more in the mold of Chaffetz, who aggressively investigated the Obama administration.
BRAD TALK: I think there isn't anybody like Chaffetz in this race right now. Obviously, that's something that is missing in this race, but we work with what we have.
RITCHEY: Scott Wessman, an unaffiliated voter, says he doesn't want the district's next member of Congress to be a rubber stamp for the Trump administration.
SCOTT WESSMAN: Independence from Trump is paramount for me personally. You know, anyone who sort of pledges fealty to Trump is inherently flawed.
RITCHEY: Wessman thinks a more pragmatic and less ideological representative would be a refreshing counterbalance to Washington's current dysfunction. For NPR News, I'm Julia Ritchey in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.