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In Utah House Race, Attitudes Toward Trump Divide GOP Candidates

Republican candidates John Curtis, left, Tanner Ainge, and Chris Herrod, participate in a debate at the Utah Valley Convention Center Friday, July 28, 2017, in Provo. The Republican candidates, vying for the seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, debated on topics ranging from health care to religious freedom.
Rick Bowmer

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.

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Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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