PROVO — The newest member of Utah's congressional delegation, Rep. John Curtis, is scrambling to squeeze in time to campaign in the state during the final weeks leading up to the June 26 Republican primary election.
Meanwhile, his opponent, former state lawmaker Chris Herrod, is holding meetings in homes, senior centers and just about anywhere else voters are willing to hear from him in the 3rd District, which stretches from Salt Lake City through eastern Utah.
Curtis, the former Provo mayor elected last November to fill the vacancy left when Rep. Jason Chaffetz resigned, nearly avoided a primary by coming within 12 votes of winning the Republican nomination outright at the state party's convention in April.
But because he fell slightly short of the 60 percent threshold of delegate support needed to advance to the general election ballot from convention, Curtis once again faces Herrod in a party primary.
There are significant differences between this race and their 2017 special election matchup, which attracted close to $1 million in spending by largely conservative political groups from outside the state.
The hotly contested three-way primary race last year also included political newcomer Tanner Ainge, who attracted attention in part because his father is former BYU basketball star Danny Ainge, now the general manager of the Boston Celtics.
This time around, however, Curtis has a seemingly insurmountable lead according to a recent UtahPolicy.com poll that found the congressman leading with the support of nearly two-thirds of likely GOP primary voters, to just 18 percent for Herrod.
"That's a sucker punch," Herrod said. "I'm starting to think that people just think John hasn’t had long enough to judge his experience. But I did think I would at least have the 33 percent I had last time and be fighting for Tanner’s (supporters)."
Curtis told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards that the poll released June 4 shows his efforts to be accessible to his constituents, through holding many town hall meetings while getting things done in Congress, is resonating with voters.
"People are starting to learn my brand is doing things differently, looking at things from a different set of eyes," he said. "We've just barely started to show constituents how we do that, and we're finding out ourselves. We want to break some molds."
Both candidates are reaching out to voters, but on a much smaller scale than last year. Then a seemingly endless stream of negative TV commercials, many from conservative groups outside the state backing Herrod, flooded the airwaves.
Now voters are getting robocalls from Herrod where he directs them to his campaign website by reminding them his name is "Herrod, like the bad guy in the Bible but spelled with two 'r's."
Herrod says on the call his opponent has labeled him "extreme because I believe Republicans should follow the platform, keep their promises, as well as follow the Constitution and support the (President Donald) Trump agenda."
Curtis is running radio ads where a narrator tells voters "some people go to Washington and become Washington" but for Utah's newest congressman, "it's just a job, 2,000 miles from his home in Utah."
The 60-second radio spot does not mention Trump, but notes Curtis "even stood up to his own party, voting against a massive spending bill," a reference to the $1.3 trillion government funding legislation passed in March.
In the Republican's 2017 special election convention of 3rd Congressional District delegates, Herrod was the surprise winner over a long list of candidates, including Curtis, who was eliminated with just 9 percent of the vote.
Because Curtis had also gathered voter signatures as allowed under a controversial law still being battled by a faction of the Utah GOP, he made the primary ballot. Ainge also gathered voter signatures, but did not compete at convention.
Curtis also qualified for this year's Republican primary ballot by gathering voter signatures, but he once again also went through the party's traditional caucus and convention nomination process.
His strong showing so far in this year's election suggests that Curtis has won over at least some conservatives concerned about his Democratic past, said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
Karpowitz said the national groups that targeted Curtis last year, because he had headed the Utah County Democratic Party years ago, "are less worried this time." He said that's bad news for Herrod, who benefited most from the outside spending.
"We still have some time to go, but he's got a great deal of ground to make up and he doesn't have the same level of monetary support, both from his campaign and from outside groups," the political science professor said.
What may also be affecting Herrod is his steadfast support for Trump, something Karpowitz said plays well only among a relatively small number of conservative voters, even in one of the most Republican congressional districts in the country.
Although the president appears to be helping candidates in midterm races in other states, Trump won Utah in 2016 with his lowest margin of victory nationwide, about 45 percent of the vote statewide and just over 47 percent in the 3rd District.
"The group of really committed Trump supporters does not seem to be as large in Utah as it is in other Republican states," Karpowitz said. "That's even true in a heavily Republican district like the 3rd."
Herrod told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards that his strength with voters is that he doesn't shy away from what he believes in.
"One of the things that you get with me is I am who I am who I am," Herrod said. "I resist some of the ultraconservative label, but I have a distinct record of doing what I said I would. Like it or not, I tell people how I feel."
Curtis said he is not taking his lead for granted.
"I have the personality that it's never enough," he said. "We're still having town hall meetings. We're working hard. The campaign is in full swing, and we're going to go all the way across the finish line."10 comments on this story
The winner of the Republican primary election will face three candidates in the November general election, Democrat James Courage Singer, the United Utah Party's Melanie McCoard and the Independent American Party's Gregory Duerden.
Primary voting People can still register to vote in person at a county clerk's office or online until Tuesday. New registrants or unaffiliated voters can affiliate at the polls with either party in order to vote in the primary. While most of the election is being conducted by mail, in-person early voting is underway through June 22. Polling information can be located at vote.utah.gov.