Utah GOP congressional candidates focus on virus, protests

The Republican contenders to challenge Utah’s lone congressional Democrat differed at a debate Monday on whether a hardline conservative or a more centrist candidate would be the party’s best chance in November.

The race is playing out against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and widespread protests against police brutality.

State Rep. Kim Coleman, former radio host Jay McFarland, and non-profit CEO Trent Christensen said they would be willing to compromise with congressional Democrats, while former NFL player Burgess Owens said he would take a more hardline approach, referring to some Democrats as “the enemy.”

McFarland argued that a more centrist approach would win over voters in the suburban Salt Lake City district. “If we’re choosing extremes who can’t even look at the other side, can’t even talk to the other side, how can we except them to come together with any solutions?” he said.

MacFarland, whose daughter suffers from severe asthma, is the only candidate who wears a mask in public. The three other cited personal liberty concerns in not wearing masks, but Christensen said he does wear one if required to enter a business.

“I don’t have a problem with masks,” Christensen said. “What I do have a problem with is being told I have to wear a mask. That’s not how we do things in America.”

When asked about Congress’ response to the coronavirus pandemic, all four said the federal government’s continued support of small businesses was crucial.

Many also voiced frustration that red states, including Utah, may be restricted because of economic ties with states that are slower to reopen. There have been about 10,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Utah and 113 deaths, according to state figures.

Christensen, who pushed his pro-business stance, said legislation is needed to reopen the country. He said Congress should pass another stimulus bill that would require states to open by a certain date to receive the funds.

The debate came after a weekend of volatile protests in Utah and around the country over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after he was pinned at the neck by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Christensen said Congress should give police more support and training so that they are able to “weed out the bad apples." Coleman and Owens said more should be done to establish trust between police and the communities they oversee.

MacFarland criticized the federal government for a “vacuum of leadership" and said the nation's leaders need to listen to protesters' concerns.

The Republican primary is June 30. The winner will challenge Congressman Ben McAdams who flipped the seat in 2018 in a tight race against incumbent Republican Mia Love.