SANDY, Utah — A Republican Utah mayor considered the front-runner in a race to replace Jason Chaffetz in Congress ignored his opponents’ efforts in a Friday night debate to tie him to President Donald Trump, who struggled last year to gain favor with Utah’s conservative but Mormon-majority population.
United Utah Party candidate Jim Bennett repeatedly linked Provo Mayor John Curtis, to the president and his policies, including a controversial plan for a wall along the U.S-Mexico border wall.
“If you believe that the Trump agenda is the way to a bright and prosperous future, then you have a candidate in this race,” said Bennett, the son of former longtime GOP Sen. Bob Bennett running in a new centrist party.
Bennett said he left the Republican Party because of its embrace of Trump while Democratic candidate Dr. Kathryn Allen said she won’t face pressure from GOP leaders and the president needs to be called out “for lying, for his racist tendencies, for his sexist tendencies and for his xenophobia.”
Curtis, who has said he supports the president’s agenda, didn’t challenge the comments aligning him with the president but instead struck careful stances on issues like immigration.
He told reporters afterward that no one asks about Trump on the campaign trail and he wants to talk about his own message.
Curtis has a heavy advantage in the special election as the GOP candidate in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 5-to-1.
The president won Utah’s 3rd Congressional District in November, but he did so with only 47 percent of the vote — far below Republican presidential candidates in 2012 and 2008, who collected more than two-thirds of the vote.
Trump’s brash personality, his martial history and his comments about women, minorities and refugees turned off many Republicans and moderates in Utah, where the Mormon-majority population stresses family values, polite manners and a compassionate stance toward immigrants and refugees.
Curtis was the only GOP candidate in a three-way primary in August who didn’t vote for Trump, but his muddled support for the president’s policies has complicated his campaign.
Last month, he apologized and pulled campaign ads calling for Congress to build Trump’s proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall and “stop sanctuary cities,” after his opponents criticized the ads as insensitive.
Bennett seized on the ad controversy Friday, saying that a border wall is a bad idea and “to this day, I still do not know whether John Curtis supports a border wall or not.”
Curtis said he would support “the best ideas that make us the safest,” telling reporters afterward that he supports the wall but that it may be more appropriate to use other technology on some parts of the border.
While the president’s policies and comments may put him in a tough spot, he won’t face an uphill climb like Allen. On Friday, she declared her independence from leaders of her party — who are much more unpopular than the president in Utah.
“I’m not a big fan of Nancy Pelosi but I’ll bet you wanted to stereotype me as somebody who loves her,” Allen said.
Another debate participant, retired college professor and Libertarian Joe Buchman, acknowledged he wasn’t likely to win as a third-party candidate but said if elected, he would go to Washington and, “I would start undoing things.”
Bennett touted himself as a candidate who can work across the aisle, and at one point tried to drive that home by zinging Curtis during a question about education: The mayor thanked teachers for their hard work and everything they put up with, making his point by pulling out his 5th grade report card and noting how his teacher said he didn’t play well with others.
“I’m having a difficult time answering this question,” Bennett quipped, “because John Curtis’s 5th grade teacher has just demonstrated that he has the perfect qualifications to serve in the United States Congress.”