SALT LAKE CITY — Sparks flew during a 3rd Congressional District debate Monday over the negative campaigning by big-spending super PACs almost entirely aimed at the front-runner in the Republican primary, Provo Mayor John Curtis.
"For the first time, people are hearing me swing back a little bit. I've been attacked about my record, and I'm proud of my record. I'm not going to sit still and let people use distortions and half-truths," Curtis told reporters afterward.
Curtis said he is the only candidate in the race not backed by a so-called super political action committee from out of state.
"You have to ask: Why is this money coming in?" he said. "What do they want? What are they trying to buy?"
Former state lawmaker Chris Herrod said after the debate the money being spent by super PACs on the Aug. 15 GOP primary shows "how vital" the outcome is.
"The reason there's so much money in this race is the stakes are high," he said.
Herrod cited the recent failure of GOP efforts in Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, as an example.
"One vote can make a big difference," he said. "So a lot of people don't want to take chances."
Alpine lawyer Tanner Ainge told reporters he doesn't agree the super PAC ads are "real negative campaigning" and said it is important to show the differences between the candidates.
Ainge said he wishes the candidates "could all have an even platform to just talk about our records." But, he said, "career politicians aren't getting the job done. And sometimes you need money out there to get the message out."
During the hourlong debate broadcast on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show," Curtis challenged both Ainge and Herrod to denounce the advertising being paid for by the largely Washington, D.C.-based PACs.
Herrod said candidates have no control over spending by political action committees, but then questioned Curtis' claims that he is a conservative given his support for the bus rapid transit project in Provo.
"I don't believe that it is negative to compare things, but some of the snarkiness of some of the things I haven't appreciated," Herrod said. "But there are differences in records, and those things are OK to talk about."
Ainge said he doesn't believe "there is a place in politics for personal attacks" and then brought up that he has "taken a lot of incoming flak from both other campaigns and from outside groups" but considers it part of the process.
The political newcomer said a "thick skin" is going to be needed in Congress.
Curtis sparred with both Herrod and Ainge over some of the claims made in the campaign, which has seen well over $500,000 spent by a variety of super PACs, according to federal disclosures.
Herrod pushed back on the federal money being used to pay for the bus rapid transit project, and said both he and Ainge said Curtis had raised taxes during his eight years as mayor of Provo.
"That's a lie," Curtis said, noting the mayor does not have the power to increase taxes. He said property taxes in the largest city in the district are lower than they were when he took office.
Curtis handed out documents to reporters following the debate showing a slight decrease in the property tax rate from 2009 to 2016. Utah would "absolutely" be better off without the super PAC efforts, Curtis said.
Ainge, whose family members are funding much of the Conservative Utah super PAC created last month in support his campaign, said he was happy to have their support. "I don't want to be beholden to any special interest groups," he said.
Herrod said the the influx of outside dollars were helping the candidates' finances "become equal." Among the super PACs backing him is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's Jobs, Freedom and Security PAC. Cruz, a Republican, has campaigned for Herrod in Utah.
With just over a week until Election Day, the candidates took on an even sharper tone than they have in their past three debates, though they still generally agreed on the need for less federal control over a number of issues, including health care and public lands.
The 3rd District, which includes parts of Salt Lake and Utah counties, as well as Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan, and Wasatch counties, has been without a representative since now-former Rep. Jason Chaffetz resigned June 30 to become a Fox News contributor.
The election is being conducted largely by mail in most of the district, and ballots were sent out late last month. Utahns have until Tuesday to register to vote in the primary election, which is open only to Republican voters.
The winner of the GOP primary will face several candidates in November's general election for the remainder of Chaffetz's term, including Democrat Kathie Allen and new United Utah Party candidate Jim Bennett.