New Utah House member faces divided Congress, re-election

November 8, 2017
John Curtis, Republican candidate for 3rd Congressional District celebrates his win at the Marriott Hotel & Conference Center Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in Provo, Utah. The Republican mayor of the Mormon stronghold of Provo, has won a special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Republican John Curtis will become Utah’s newest member of Congress after easily winning a special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz in a heavily GOP district.

Now comes the hard part.

Curtis, mayor of the Mormon stronghold of Provo, will have to immediately learn the ropes of a divided Congress searching for a legislative victory while he maps out a way to win the seat again next year.

Curtis, elected to fill only the final year of Chaffetz’s term, is expected to be sworn in quickly as Republicans controlling the U.S. House hope to tackle an ambitious agenda before year’s end.

On Wednesday, Curtis dove in, hiring a chief of staff and soliciting resumes for his office. He’s expected to be sworn into the U.S. House on Monday evening and will resign as Provo’s mayor shortly before that, campaign spokesman Danny Laub said in a text message.

Utah elections director Mark Thomas said that though the election results won’t be official until Nov. 28, the U.S. House Speaker’s Office and U.S. House clerk say they have sworn in candidates quickly when they’ve felt comfortable that unofficial results won’t change with the final tally.

Last summer, for example, Speaker Paul Ryan swore in Ohio’s Warren Davidson two days after Davidson won a special election to replace former House Speaker John Boehner.

Curtis won by about 30 percentage points, according to unofficial results.

The 57-year-old will inherit the former Republican congressman’s struggle between supporting the head of his party, President Donald Trump, and distancing himself from controversies surrounding the president.

In his victory speech Tuesday night to a packed Provo hotel ballroom, Curtis acknowledged that voters are worried about gun violence, the direction the country is going and a “lack of civility,” pledging to be a unifier.

“We need bridge builders, not bomb throwers,” Curtis said.

Curtis’ His predecessor was known during his eight years in Congress for his persistent investigations into Hillary Clinton. Chaffetz resigned at the end of June, citing a desire to spend more time with family. He quickly became a paid Fox News contributor, leaving behind an enticing open seat that initially attracted more than 20 candidates.

Curtis became the GOP nominee after a tough primary where he faced suspicion from the party’s conservative flank for having once been a Democrat. As he prepares to quickly run another campaign, he will likely face a strong challenge from the right for the Republican nomination.

His general election opponents, Democrat Kathryn Allen and third-party candidate Jim Bennett, tried to challenge Curtis from the left and tie him to the president, whose brash personality and comments about women and minorities garnered him a lukewarm reception in Utah last year.

Curtis, who has said significant moral concerns kept him from voting for Trump last year, took a different tone Tuesday than the president.

“If you’re not white, Mormon or male, I am still here for you,” Curtis said. “Those who know me best know that it doesn’t matter if you’re 9 or 90, rich or poor, gay or straight, Mormon or atheist, Navajo or Caucasian.”

But Curtis, who ran a shooting-range business before becoming Provo mayor, has said he supports the president’s agenda and repeated Trump refrains to “build the wall” and “drain the swamp” during the campaign.

Ada Wilson, a 59-year-old homemaker from Orem and a Republican, said she liked Bennett’s principles but voted for Curtis because he can “play the part that he needs to play in Congress and among his peers.”

“He just presents himself well and is moderate enough that he can work with people of both parties,” Wilson said.

The congressional district, which has five registered Republicans for every registered Democrat, stretches from several Salt Lake City suburbs and ski towns southeast to Provo, coal country and the tourist-heavy red rock deserts.

Allen, the Democratic nominee and a family doctor, had originally planned to challenge Chaffetz for the seat, raising roughly half a million dollars after seizing on Chaffetz’s comments suggesting people should spend their money on health insurance instead of iPhones.

Chaffetz’s exit and Curtis’ ascension stalled her fundraising and left little chance for a Democratic victory in the deeply red district.

Allen said that when she called to congratulate Curtis, she told him she hopes he has the courage to stand up to Trump when necessary. She said Curtis told her to call him on it if he fails.

Bennett, son of former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett who was ousted in a 2010 tea-party wave, ran as the first candidate of a new centrist political party he helped found, United Utah.

Jim Bennett left the Republican Party when Trump became its presidential candidate and sued Utah officials to win a place on the ballot this November.

He said in a statement that he intends to stay involved with the new party, which he believes has a bright future.


Associated Press writer Brady McCombs contributed to this report. Follow Price on Twitter at https://twitter.com/michellelprice .

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