SALT LAKE CITY — Congressman-elect Burgess Owens got the call Monday that he’d been waiting for from Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, conceding their 4th Congressional District race that has been too close to call since Election Day on Nov. 3.
“I received a call from @BenMcAdams,” Owens tweeted afterward. “He expressed appreciation for the opportunity to serve #UT04 and his commitment to a smooth transition. My sincere thanks to him for both. Thank you my fellow Utahns, I am committed to have an open ear to serve you. Thank you for the opportunity.”
Later, Owens said in a statement, “It was a hard fought race and I am grateful for Ben’s kind words, his service and desire for a smooth transition. I am eager and excited to work on behalf of every constituent in the district and continue to serve our community. It is time to get to work.”
Owens, 69, a former NFL player, author and frequent Fox News guest, is the second Black Republican elected to Congress from Utah. He was in Washington, D.C. Monday, meeting with other newly elected members of Congress and GOP leaders.
McAdams, 45, returned to the nation’s capital Monday and told reporters he spoke to Owens by phone “to congratulate him on winning this hard fought and close race.” He said they “have differences in political philosophy and how we approach public service. But we both love our country.”
That means, the first-term congressman said during an online news conference, “that both the great-grandson of a slave and the son of a single mother elementary school teacher can run for office in this great country. Neither of us comes from money or power.”
Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown said winning back the 4th District seat Republicans lost two years ago was his No. 1 goal.
“I am thrilled that Burgess Owens’ victory is now official as well,” Brown said, citing the party’s successes in other races. “Owens ran a principle-centered race, focused on the real issues that matter to Utahns, and won after truly historic levels of participation.”
Owens’ lead over McAdams during the past week appeared insurmountable Friday after Salt Lake County reported most of the remaining results from voters in the 4th District, which also includes portions of Utah, Juab and Sanpete counties, keeping Owens ahead, 47.5% to just over 46.9%.
The official vote canvass is Tuesday and the results will become final with the state canvass on Nov. 23. The race is one of the last in the country to be settled in an election that saw Democrats lose seats in Congress but maintain control of the House.
“It’s a heartbreaking loss for Democrats, considering the margin,” said David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Report, an independent and nonpartisan online publication based in Washington, D.C., that analyzes key political races around the country.
Worse for Democrats, Wasserman told the Deseret News, is that the loss means “it’s possible Republicans could take this seat off the table for 2022 if they’re able to muscle through a map that protects Owens in the 2021 redistricting process,” that will be handled by the GOP-dominated Utah Legislature.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, called Owens’ victory “both surprising and impressive — surprising because he was not seen as an especially strong candidate early on and seemed to struggle on some issues.”
But it’s also “an impressive showing over a well-known candidate who had held multiple important elected positions in the state,” Karpowitz said, adding that “this outcome mirrors the pattern we see across the United States, with down-ballot Republicans doing much better than expected.”
Even before McAdams conceded, Owens had been congratulated on a victory by a long list of Republicans, including President Donald Trump and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. Owens tweeted his own congratulations to other newly elected Republicans, saying, “Promise you … this LOVE AMERICA Freshman team will make you proud. Stay tuned.”
McAdams, a former state lawmaker and Salt Lake County mayor, had won the seat two years ago after defeating two-term Republican Rep. Mia Love, the first Black Republican woman to serve in Congress, by less than 700 votes. More than $22 million has been spent on the race, considered one of the most competitive in the country.
Not only was the race the most expensive in the state’s history, it has also been described as the most negative. Much of the money that poured into the race from both Republican and Democratic groups, as well as the more than $8.5 million raised by the candidates, paid for seemingly nonstop attack ads on TV.
Trump endorsed Owens after his June 30 primary election victory over three other Republican contenders — state Rep. Kim Coleman, former KSL Newsradio host Jay Mcfarland and nonprofit CEO Trent Christensen — in what was seen as a wide-open race for the party’s nomination.
Owens initially had just $90,000 in cash on hand at the time of the primary, but that changed quickly. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., attended fundraisers for Owens in Utah and other high-profile Republicans, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., also helped him raise money.
A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll in mid-October gave Owens a slight edge over McAdams, 46% to 45%. Independent pollster Scott Rasmussen called the race a bellwether for how Republicans and Democrats would perform nationally in Congressional elections.
Turnout is expected to be above 87% statewide, according to Utah Elections Director Justin Lee, this highest since 1964, when 89.6% of Utah voters went to the polls. While Utah has conducted elections largely by mail for years, the coronavirus pandemic limited in-person voting this year.
The higher number of voters favored Owens in a district that leans Republican, McAdams said. In 2018, he had the advantage of more Democrats turning out to vote for the legalization of medical marijuana and other ballot initiatives. Still, he beat Love only in Salt Lake County, where most 4th District voters live.
McAdams said this year, his “campaign was centered around a rejection of extremism and the need for leaders who will put the needs of the people they represent before any political party,” including his own. He said he is “not part of the far left extreme of the Democratic Party that talks about socialism. I repeatedly called that out.”
His advice to the Democratic Party is to tone that down and “do a little more listening to those who represent districts like mine.” McAdams said what he kept hearing from undecided voters was, “‘We love you. We appreciate the work you are doing. We know you are a centrist. But we’re worried about the Democratic Party.’”
He pledged a “smooth transition” for Owens, especially when it comes to providing services to constituents who need help navigating the federal government. But McAdams, who remains in office through the beginning of next year, said it’s too soon for him to start thinking about what his political future might hold.
Owens will join three other Utah Republicans in Congress: Reps. Chris Stewart and John Curtis, who easily won reelection in their districts, and Rep.-elect Blake Moore, who will succeed longtime retiring Rep. Rob Bishop in the 1st District.
Utah gained a fourth seat in Congress a decade ago, and it was initially held by a Democrat, Jim Matheson.