When Rep. Jason Chaffetz first announced his unexpected early departure from Congress, it set off a mad dash of 15 Republicans vying for the coveted seat.
Now, three months later, just three conservative candidates — Provo Mayor John Curtis, former state Rep. Chris Herrod and businessman Tanner Ainge — remain in the race.
They will duke it out in Tuesday’s primary for just one GOP spot on the general election ballot. The winner will face Democrat Kathie Allen and the United Utah Party’s Jim Bennett, as well as a handful of independent and third-party candidates, on Nov. 7.
It’s been a tense run-up to the primary with insults and name-calling, bruising and battering. For voters mailing in ballots or heading to polling centers, here’s a rundown of it all.
The ’most conservative mayor’
In early April, Provo Mayor John Curtis discovered a fundraising account online that left him feeling “very awkward.” Someone was asking for donations for his campaign against Chaffetz.
The problem? Curtis wasn’t challenging the congressman. And he never planned to.
Before he could figure out how to shut it down, though, Curtis’ phone started ringing and Chaffetz’s name appeared on the screen. “Oh shoot. Here it comes,” Curtis recalled thinking as he answered. But what he heard from the congressman was not what he expected.
“Don’t worry about it,” Chaffetz assured Curtis about the unsanctioned GoFundMe page. “I won’t be running again.”
A few days later, Chaffetz announced those plans publicly. In the months since, he has departed Congress and joined Fox News as a contributor.
Curtis still dwells on that short phone conversation. He didn’t know right then that he would, in fact, join the race for the unexpectedly open seat. But he did have a idea.
“Did you feel the earth move just a little bit?” Curtis remembers telling his wife, Sue.
The mayor of the state’s third-largest city is now the Republican front-runner, taking the lead in three separate Dan Jones & Associates polls conducted since June. A Curtis win, though, isn’t assured. A still large number of voters remain undecided and negative campaigning has hacked away at the mayor’s reputation and popularity.
“I’ve been the most conservative mayor that the state’s ever had.” <br> — John Curtis <br>
He’s been dogged most with criticism over his party loyalty. Curtis was for a short time registered as a Democrat when he ran and subsequently lost a bid against state GOP Sen. Curt Bramble in 2000. He wanted to bring the typically Republican stances of anti-abortion and pro-gun rights to the left.
His competitors and detractors — including super PACs funding hundreds of thousands of dollars in attack ads against him — say that makes Curtis a flimsy conservative. The mayor has responded to the wrath with humor.
“I don’t even like the M word,” he joked during a recent meeting with The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board, referring to “moderate.”
“I’ve been the most conservative mayor that the state’s ever had.”
Curtis returned to the Republican Party and launched a special election campaign for retiring state Rep. Jeff Alexander’s seat in 2007. Though he had one more delegate vote than Herrod — also running for Chaffetz’s seat — Curtis was not appointed by then-Gov. Jon Huntsman.
For this race, Curtis collected signatures to qualify for the primary ballot which he said “makes some people very grumpy.” His platform, though, is hard-line GOP and likely to please conservatives in the 3rd Congressional District. And, unlike last time, he now has the governor‘s endorsement, although it’s a different one: Gov. Gary Herbert‘s endorsement.
Curtis supports reducing the size of Bears Ears National Monument, securing the U.S. border and protecting religious freedoms.
How about taxes? “Hate ’em,” he said throwing a fist onto the table with a grin.
Health care? Repeal Obamacare, he says, not withholding criticism for his party in the failed efforts to replace it. “For seven years, we complained and we weren’t ready when the spotlight came on us.”
And President Donald Trump? Though he wrote in a “good friend’s name” instead of voting for Trump, Curtis wants the president to be successful and will work with the White House agenda when he agrees with it.
Curtis also supports small businesses, having run his own for several years. The mayor continues to hold a minority share in that company, Action Target, which develops shooting ranges, while also operating two rental properties (one at Brighton and the other near Bear Lake).
During his time as mayor, Curtis worked to improve Provo’s economic development and downtown vibrancy, as well as launched clean air and recreation initiatives. He touts a 2.95 percent decrease in property taxes since he took office eight years ago.
His decision to not run again for re-election in the city is the same outlook he has toward holding federal office — and it’s much like Chaffetz’s.
“When I’m spent, I’ll move aside.”
The ’platform Republican’
As Chris Herrod sat in a plane about to touch down in Ukraine, the man next to him rattled on about the country. He talked about the people and their kindness before mentioning the women.
That last part caught Herrod’s attention, who at the time had recently graduated from Brigham Young University and was on his way to a teaching gig at Kharkov National University. He lingered over the man’s words — “the prettiest women in all of the former Soviet Union” — before stepping onto the tarmac. There, he met Alia.
She was assigned by the university to pick Herrod up from the airport and held a sign with his name. The two married four months later.
The former state lawmaker loves telling that story of how he first met his wife 25 years ago. He worked it into his speech to delegates at the Republican convention, where he won the party delegates’ nomination in June, and has repeated it at debates since. That’s because it has largely influenced how he sees the world.
He often compares his upbringing in Provo to Alia’s experience in Ukraine. His father was a Vietnam veteran who “taught us to be patriotic.” Her family lived in a Soviet regime where freedoms were limited.
“That just kind of reinforced how fortunate we are to be in this country,” Herrod explained to the Tribune editorial board.
The starkest difference for Herrod became apparent when he traveled back to the Ukraine for a trip with Alia. She was rushed to a hospital in the country with complications from an ectopic pregnancy. Herrod remembers seeing women lying on on “dingy, gray sheets” crammed into one room. The conditions were so bad, he walked out to collect himself.
Alia Herrod left with a seven-inch scar that could have been a quarter-inch were she treated in America, Herrod believes. That experience was the root of his strong opposition to what he calls “socialized medicine.” It’s become a large tenet of his platform for office as Republican-led efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare have stalled.
Herrod supports gutting the health-care law and creating a free-market system where employers don’t pay for insurance and Medicare is phased out. He’s a fan of the amendment proposed by Utah Sen. Mike Lee that would have allowed individuals to use pre-tax dollars in health savings accounts to pay for coverage.
“The way that I have voted in the past is how I will vote in the future.” <br> — Chris Herrod <br>
During his term in the Utah House, from 2007 to 2012, Herrod made his mark as one of the most outspoken critics of illegal immigration. He believes the United States need to “shut down the back door” of people coming into the country without proper documentation.
“I’ve been called all sorts of names for not being Christian or compassionate,” he said. “But it’s not compassionate for us to entice people to come here illegally.”
His solution would be to deport those who’ve overstayed and have them “get back in line” to become legal citizens. He also supports Trump’s calls for a border wall between the United States and Mexico.
Herrod describes himself as a “platform Republican” and voted for Trump in the 2016 election. He had originally supported Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas before he lost in the primary. Herrod served as the Utah director for Cruz’s campaign and has nabbed an endorsement from him and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky in this special election to replace Chaffetz.
National conservative groups, including Club for Growth and the House Freedom Fund, have backed his campaign with big money, bolstering his image as the most right-wing candidate. He’s alternated with Ainge between second and third place in the polls, calling undecided voters “the wild card.”
In 2012 Herrod launched — and lost — a bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and, later in 2016, state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo. He now works as a real-estate developer with Six-Man Development and is a loan officer for Citywide Home Loans. He sells cars on the side and is developing his own polling startup called DemocraQ.
If elected, he’d like to claw back the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education. He believes there needs to be a powerful voice on the right to challenge those on the left, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“The way that I have voted in the past is how I will vote in the future.”
The GOP newcomer
Tanner Ainge remembers just fragments from the crash.
He was maybe 11 years old when it happened, sitting in the back seat of a car stopped at an intersection. The semi truck was going 60 miles an hour and carrying two loads of gravel. It didn’t even slow down.
It slammed into the back of the car he was in, which T-boned another vehicle and killed a woman. Three kids were in critical condition. Ainge was the only one conscious.
One girl in his car — the sister of Ainge’s now-wife, Heidi, whose family he grew up with — was in a coma for two months. She later came out of it, but had a traumatic brain injury that’s affected her ever since.
The event scarred and scared Ainge. Now, more than 30 years later, it’s the experience he brings up to explain where he is and what he’s doing: running for Congress as a political first-timer against two experienced Republicans.
“Life is short,” he said. It’s why he graduated from Brigham Young University in three years and finished law school in just 18 months. It’s why he’s built a career in business — running his own consulting firm, Ainge Advisory. And it’s why at 33 years old he asked Chaffetz for his famous cot (though the congressman politely said he had other plans for it).
“It’s not something that I anticipated doing,” Ainge said about his bid for office.
The newcomer isn’t entirely unknown, though. He gets a bit of a boost from his famous father, Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics General Manager and a Utah celebrity for his game-winning shot that sent BYU to the Elite Eight in the NCAA championships.
His dad was one of the first people to encourage Ainge to run and has hosted fundraisers for him. And his mom, Michelle Toolson Ainge, has donated $250,000 to the super PAC Conservative Utah buying ads on her son’s behalf.
“No one ever votes for anything until the crisis is at the doorstep.” <br> — Tanner Ainge <br>
Ainge’s political experience is limited to a one-year stint volunteering in the campaign finance arm of Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid, though his business know-how is much more extensive. He’s worked as an attorney for most of his career, was general counsel for a health-care trust and founder of a company in California that managed investments.
He made roughly $280,000 in salary last year, according to his personal finance disclosure.
Ainge has also directed a nonprofit, African Equity Fund, which he started after serving a Mormon mission in West Africa, and has several investments, including one in a golf company in Arizona.
His work in finance has largely molded his platform. Ainge proposes cutting national spending, shrinking the federal debt, lowering taxes and reducing the number of income tax brackets from seven to three.
“I find it immoral the way we’re carrying on,” he said about the United States’ budget.
Ainge did not support Trump in the primary, but voted for him in the general election believing him to be “a far better choice than Hillary Clinton.” The president’s tweeting, though, is not the best way to “really have a meaningful message,” he added.
The first-time candidate, who qualified for the ballot by collecting signatures, is focused on returning power to the states, reforming immigration laws and safeguarding gun rights. On health care, he’s “not ready to give up” trying to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Ainge proposes block granting Medicaid funds and distributing at least half of that money back to the states to develop their own plans. He supports adding more choice and competition into the marketplace and would like to see transparency in health-care costs. Congress, he said, is “really close” to a solution and shouldn’t wait to act until the current system has collapsed.
“No one ever votes for anything until the crisis is at the doorstep.”