SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, has taken a lead over Republican Burgess Owens in the initial results released for the 4th Congressional District after the polls closed in the state at 8 p.m.
McAdams had nearly 52% of the vote to 43% for Owens in one of the nation’s most competitive congressional races. It is seen as a bellwether for how successful Democrats will be in in their efforts to expand their majority in the U.S. House.
The race is not expected to be decided tonight.
McAdams, 45, a former state lawmaker and then Salt Lake County mayor, was elected to the seat representing portions of Salt Lake, Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties two years ago, defeating two-term GOP Rep. Mia Love by less than 700 votes.
Owens, 69, a former NFL player, author and Fox News contributor, is making his first bid for elected office.
Well over $22 million has been spent in the race that saw McAdams labeled one of the most vulnerable members of Congress up for reelection. Much of the money came from national Republican and Democratic groups, but the candidates themselves reported spending a total of more than $8.5 million by mid-October.
The campaign cash largely was used to flood Utah airwaves with attack ads from both McAdams and Owens. Even leaders of Utah’s Republican and Democratic state parties have said there’s so much negativity that voters have stopped paying attention to the race.
The most recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll in mid-October had Owens leading McAdams by a single percentage point, 46% to 45%, prompting the Florida-based pollster, Scott Rasmussen, to declare the race “as pure a toss-up as can possibly be.”
Rasmussen said the outcome will be telling nationally because “if Owens wins, that suggests the Democrats won’t have big gains in the House this year. If McAdams wins it could be a sign just like it was two years ago, that it’s a pretty good night for the Democrats.”
In their only debate, sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission, McAdams and Owens clashed over whether preexisting conditions will be protected if the GOP succeeds in repealing the Affordable Care Act and other issues, including the root of racial tension that erupted nationwide over the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police.
Owens recalled growing up Black in the segregated South and said, “the idea that we’re a systemic racist county is totally false.” He was also critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. McAdams said there’s been “incredible progress” made against racism but “we also have more we can do.”
The campaigns for each candidate tried to tie both candidates to national figures — McAdams to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Owens to President Donald Trump, who endorsed his candidacy and whose son, Donald Trump Jr., came to Utah to help him raise money.
Owens initially lagged significantly behind McAdams in fundraising, but brought in $1.1 million more than the congressman during the three-month reporting period ending Sept. 30 and also outraised him in the last filing with the Federal Election Commission.
While McAdams was always expected to face a tough reelection as a Democrat in a GOP-leaning congressional district, it wasn’t clear who his Republican opponent would be until Owens won a wide-open, four-way primary election on June 30.
Just over 43.5% of GOP primary voters selected Owens over state Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan; former KSL NewsRadio host Jay Mcfarland; and nonprofit CEO Trent Christensen. Owens had finished second behind Coleman at the state GOP convention, where three other candidates were eliminated by delegates.
It took two weeks in 2018 before the 4th District race was called for McAdams and nearly another week before Rep. Love gave her concession speech.