SALT LAKE CITY — Provo Mayor John Curtis urges voters in a new TV commercial to elect him to Congress so he can show them how to "finally drain the swamp," the same campaign promise made by President Donald Trump.
The Republican in the 3rd District special election to fill the vacancy in Congress left when former Rep. Jason Chaffetz resigned June 30 has been labeled as too close to Trump by his opponents in the race.
But campaign spokesman Danny Laub said Curtis' message isn't about Trump.
"I think people know what 'drain the swamp' means," Laub said, noting the phrase was used long before Trump made it a centerpiece of his campaign shortly before his surprise victory. "It means we're tired of business as usual in Washington, D.C."
As long as the president shares that definition, he said, "then, yeah, Curtis is going to support that."
The commercial that began airing Thursday shows Curtis riding a motorcycle through desolate landscapes and talking with a worker at an auto repair shop. He says he's hearing on the road that "big government is out of control."
"So how about this: Let's take Capitol Hill and show them how to balance a budget, cut taxes and finally drain the swamp," Curtis says in the ad. "For far too long, D.C. politicians have let us down."
Curtis does not mention Trump in the 30-second spot, expected to continue running through Election Day on Nov. 7.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Curtis continues to use language that aligns himself with the president.
That includes a Facebook ad placed on Curtis' behalf and later pulled that sought another key piece of Trump's agenda, building a wall along the United States border with Mexico.
Curtis has made it clear he supports what he describes as the Trump agenda, and he's called the president's controversial statements made on Twitter and elsewhere "distractions" that should be overlooked.
"The risk here is in trying to shore up his base, Curtis alienates people who are in the middle and who are less enthusiastic about Donald Trump and the things Donald Trump seems to stand for," Karpowitz said.
Trump won Utah in 2016 with 45.5 percent of the vote. That was his lowest margin of victory in any state, despite Utah's standing as one of the most Republican states in the nation.
Karpowitz said that makes Curtis' efforts to tie himself to Trump perplexing.
"The danger is the 3rd District of Utah is not the heart of Trump country," he said. "Utah is distinct here. There are Republican voters who have voted Republican in many elections who are uncomfortable with the style and substance of Donald Trump."
Still, if Curtis is elected to serve the remaining year of Chaffetz's term, he'll face re-election in November 2018. Trump supporters have already begun targeting Republicans seen as disloyal to the administration.
Politicians "are always looking to the next election," Karpowitz said, and could be concerned already about a primary challenge next year from a candidate backed by someone like Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist.
Someone close to Curtis acknowledged the TV commercial's reference to a Trump slogan is "looking toward the future," given Curtis' big lead in the polls over Democrat Kathie Allen, his closest competitor.
Laub said the campaign doesn't comment on strategy, "but John Curtis is looking to getting his message out to voters between now and Nov. 7, and hopefully, if successful, afterward."
Allen said Curtis has "clearly tied himself to Trump over and over."
"I guess it depends on how you define Utah values," she said, "because that's not how I define them."
Allen said Curtis should stand up to the president like Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.
Flake, a Republican, announced earlier this week in a speech on the Senate floor that he would not seek re-election and would not be silent about what he called Trump's “reckless, outrageous and undignified” behavior.
"I think the high road is say, 'No, I'm not going to go along with this administration that only tells the truth once in a while,'" Allen said.
Her campaign was also critical of Curtis for his involvement as mayor in discussions held behind closed doors about the proposed sale of a portion of a Provo municipal golf course. Curtis called the issue "the least-kept secret in town" in a blog post.
Allen's campaign spokesman, Daniel Friend, said because of the golf course issue, Curtis' new TV commercial should be seen as "the swamp rat saying he can 'drain the swamp.'"
Provo Deputy Mayor Corey Norman said Allen "is trying to score some cheap political points" and doesn't understand that "strategy sessions" related to real estate can be closed but any transactions must be completed in public.15 comments on this story
"Nothing happens in secret and nothing is hidden from the public," Norman said. He said "transparency and openness" have been a hallmark of Curtis' administration and any attempt by a political opponent to rewrite that is "feeble at best."
Jim Bennett, who's running for the 3rd District seat under the banner of the new United Utah Party, said the TV ad is another example of Curtis "trying to straddle the line between supporting Trump and being true to his conscience."
The 3rd District includes portions of Utah and Salt Lake counties, as well as Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan and Wasatch counties. Chaffetz, first elected to the seat in 2008, is now a Fox News contributor.