SALT LAKE CITY — While the battle to become the GOP Senate nominee is grabbing the headlines in the June 26 primary election, two Democrats are squaring off in the 1st Congressional District.
Political newcomers Donna McAleer and Ryan Combe are both fighting to become their party's pick to face five-term incumbent Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, in November.
In a state where Democrats only hold a single seat in Congress, a primary election among minority party candidates could be seen as making what will be a tough fight in the general election all the harder.
But Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said the intraparty challenge has made both McAleer and Combe better candidates while energizing Democrats in the largely northern Utah district.
"It really is a great plus, I think. At least it is in this case," Dabakis said, praising the pair's confidence and energy on the campaign trail. "They both believe they can pull off what would be one of the biggest political upsets."
The state party leader, however, acknowledged that's not likely to happen. Bishop, a retired teacher who served as a Utah House speaker before being elected to Congress a decade ago, "is Mr. Washington. I think he's ripe for upset. I'm not predicting one," Dabakis said.
Don't try to tell McAleer or Combe their district isn't ready for a change, though.
McAleer, 46, said she has broader appeal to voters because of her experience, which includes graduating from West Point and serving as an Army officer in Germany before leaving the service to earn a business degree and enter the corporate world.
She made Summit County her home 13 years ago, after just missing qualifying for a spot on the 2002 Olympic women's bobsled team, and is a former executive director of the nonprofit People's Health Clinic.
"It was really a turning point in my life and got me focused on the importance of giving back," said McAleer, who was born in New York and raised in the East and the South. "This is a state with a strong culture and strong values."
Combe, 30, said as the sixth generation of his family to live in Weber County, he knows what matters to voters. He founded and later sold his stake in the parent company of the Spoon Me frozen yogurt chain.
He said he has served as a consultant to a number of companies and owns Counter Culture Consulting, which provides management consulting, business plans and organizational analysis. Combe currently works in alumni relations for Weber State University as a fundraiser.
"I am part of the community," said Combe, who speaks Spanish she learned as an LDS missionary in Argentina. "I grew up on Combe Road. Combe is a very recognized name in Weber County with a lot of history behind it."
In the first round of balloting, McAleer fell just short of winning her party's nomination at the state Democratic Party convention in April. The race went to a primary after her support dropped in the second round of delegate voting.
She has outraised Combe, collecting more than $56,000 in contributions compared to just more than $11,000 for him. McAleer reported having nearly $31,000 on hand as of June 5, the end of the Federal Election Commission reporting period for pre-primary financial disclosures, while Combe reported spending $43 more than his campaign had available.
McAleer said there's a lot of excitement surrounding the primary race and a "tremendous amount of momentum" behind putting a woman on the November ballot.
The author of a book about women graduates of West Point intended to provide girls with role models, McAleer said Congress needs more women.
More veterans are needed, too, she said, to provide perspective on military issues, including protecting Hill Air Force Base. "We need leaders who understand … the importance of that particular military facility not only to our state but to our nation."
Combe said higher education is his top priority as a candidate. A student at both Snow College and Weber State, he said he relied on federal grants and loans to pay for his education.
The voters he meets, Combe said, are talking about the cost of higher education, losing homes to foreclosure and being out of work, not about any threat to Hill Air Force Base.
"I don't downplay the importance of Hill," he said. But Combe said the talk of possible job losses there is "a scare tactic that politicians use."