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5 Republicans make their case for representing Utah’s 3rd Congressional District


SALT LAKE CITY — In a race with five candidates vying for nomination from the same party who broadly share a cohesive ideology, how do you stand out on the debate stage in prime time?

That was the question facing the candidates in the Republican primary for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District on Wednesday night. Although the five were not in agreement on each policy, they largely tried to differentiate themselves based on their background and experience while appealing to Republican voters who will decide which candidate advances to the general election on June 25.

For John Dougall, the argument focused on “frugality” and his years of experience in the state auditor’s office.

Mike Kennedy, a Utah state senator, leaned into his legislative experience, calling for changes to House procedure to address what he said are overstuffed omnibus bills.

Stewart Peay, a combat veteran and attorney, often invoked his lifelong residency within the district and relied on his military experience when advocating support for Ukraine in its war against Russia.

Entrepreneurship has been key to businessman Case Lawrence‘s campaign, and on Wednesday he cast himself as a candidate who understands how to create jobs and boost the nation’s economy.

Finally, Roosevelt Mayor JR Bird relied on his experience in the energy industry to back up his “all-of-the-above” approach to energy independence and positioned himself as the candidate from rural Utah.

Time was limited in the hourlong debate with a crowd of five candidates on stage, but the evening focused on policy — from foreign aid to abortion to housing affordability — with only the rare personal jab.

Abortion

Early in the debate, moderator Thomas Wright, a former Utah Republican Party chairman, asked each candidate if they would support a federal bill that banned abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. All candidates used various adverbs to describe just how opposed they are to abortion — “staunchly,” “unequivocally,” “proudly” and “strongly” — but most appeared hesitant or were opposed to federal legislation on the subject.

Kennedy, a physician, said he takes “care of children in my professional life,” and praised Utah’s near-total abortion ban saying: “Utah does it right.” He called for more support for women who carry to term or choose adoption.

Peay and Bird both said abortions should only be performed in rare cases — to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape and incest, according to Peay — but said they were uninterested in any federal restrictions.

“I do not believe this is something that should ever be legislated away in the federal government,” Peay said, noting that could create back-and-forth legislation as control in Washington flips.

“At this moment in time, it needs to be left to the states,” Bird said.

Lawrence said he’s willing to let it “play out at the state level — for now.” He said “extreme abortion states” such as California or Illinois are “marketing and encouraging abortion tourism throughout our country.”

“If that continues,” he said, “we need to strongly consider a federal ban. I think a 15-week ban is supported by most Americans, and I can certainly support that.”

But Dougall was emphatic that the issue should be left to the states, issuing what would be a repeated complaint that the federal government is already too big.

“We spent 50 years in the Republican Party making the case that this is a state’s issue,” he said.

Ukraine aid

Coming on the heels of a recent tranche of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russia, Wright asked each candidate if the U.S. should continue to provide support.

Peay, Lawrence and Dougall all expressed support for Ukraine aid, while Bird and Kennedy had reservations about further funding.

“Ukrainians are on the front lines of that,” Peay said. “We should supply them those weapons and ammunition they need to hold the line. … When America is not proactive is when she suffers.”

Lawrence described the Ukrainian cause as “just … they are freedom fighters protecting their homeland.” He said the aid would be an investment in global security, while Dougall said he’d “rather send bullets than boys,” noting that an attack on a NATO ally such as Poland could invoke a boots-on-the-ground response from the U.S. and other treaty members.

Kennedy and Bird were supportive of the Ukrainian cause but questioned the way the U.S. has stood by Ukraine. Bird criticized the U.S. for pausing natural gas exports to Europe, saying that has only funded Russia indirectly by creating a market for Russian gas. He proposed “massive sanctions” on Russia before giving more “unfettered aid.”

“When Ukraine needs help, we want to provide it, but we can’t pay for it,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy didn’t say if he would have voted for the recent aid package, and when asked by reporters, he said it was because he hadn’t had a chance to read the bill in its entirety.

“We’re focused on winning this campaign, not reading federal legislation,” he said. “But as your federal legislator, you can bet after I win this race … I will read every piece of legislation to make sure, for the people of Utah, we are doing the right things.”

Questions of residency

There has been little public polling on the race, and with five candidates, an eventual victor could win by garnering less than 30% of the vote. After the debate, Lawrence told reporters he believes he got the “front-runner treatment” from some of the other candidates.

At one point, Peay vaguely referred to Lawrence, saying he lived outside of the 3rd Congressional District. Utah law does not require congressional candidates to live in the district they are running to represent.

Lawrence took issue with the characterization and told reporters he lived inside the district for over a decade until state lawmakers “gerrymandered” him into the 4th District.

“I have built a billion-dollar business in the 3rd District,” he said. “I thought those were superficial, silly types of accusations.”

“First and foremost, I’m a resident of this district,” Peay said. “I think it’s important that a resident represents us. If you can’t vote in an election, then why should you be able to be elected?”

When asked about Utah Rep. Blake Moore, who lived outside of the district he represents when he first ran in 2020, Peay said, “I feel the same way throughout the country. If you want to name all the rest of them, I will give you the same answer every time.”

It was one of the few adversarial moments throughout the night and, indeed, the campaign. Lawrence described the civility throughout the several months of the race as a “harbinger of hope in that regard.”

“All of us have gotten along well, it’s been very civil and a very positive campaign throughout the whole time and I’m proud to be part of that,” he said.

The five candidates represent the largest GOP primary field across statewide and federal races in the upcoming June 25 primary election. The seat is currently held by Rep. John Curtis and has drawn broad attention from candidates as Curtis seeks to replace Sen. Mitt Romney in the U.S. Senate.

The Utah Debate Commission hosted five previous debates this week in the races for the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts, Senate, attorney general and governor. All debates were held at PBS Utah in the Eccles Broadcast Center on the University of Utah campus.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that Utah Rep. Blake Moore lives outside the boundaries of the 1st Congressional District he represents. Moore lived outside the district when he first ran in 2020, but subsequent redistricting maps now place him within district boundaries.



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