SALT LAKE CITY — Three GOP candidates hoping to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz in Congress face off in a primary election Tuesday after weeks trying to burnish their conservative credentials and fend off attack ads from deep-pocketed outside groups.
Chaffetz abruptly stepped down from his seat in June after making a name for himself as the Republican who relentlessly investigated Hillary Clinton and her emails while he was chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
His departure opened up a congressional seat in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats five-to-one, offering voters and donors a choice between three candidates emblematic of the divisions roiling the GOP under President Donald Trump.
Out-of-state organizations and political action committees have spent about $900,000 in Utah's race — on top of about $600,000 in campaign contributions collected by the three Republicans running for Utah's 3rd Congressional District.
Outside spending of that magnitude is generally only seen in deep-red Utah when Democrats and Republicans face off occasional close races.
Moderate Utah Republicans have backed a popular mayor, John Curtis, who was once a Democrat and said he had strong moral concerns that kept him from voting for Trump. Those further to the right have split their support behind Chris Herrod, a former state lawmaker known for strict immigration positions, and Tanner Ainge, a business consultant, first-time candidate and son of Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge.
Herrod, 51, and Ainge, 33, both voted for Trump, but all three candidates say they support the president's agenda — including plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, revamp the tax code and repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Curtis, the target of most of the out-of-state attack ads, has faced suspicion and criticism from some Republicans for his 2000 run as a Democrat for the state Legislature and his time leading a county Democratic party. The 57-year-old identifies today as a conservative Republican and points out that Ronald Reagan, Trump and Chaffetz were all Democrats at one point.
For Ada Wilson, a 59-year-old Republican homemaker from Orem, Curtis' stint across the aisle is one of the reasons she's voting for him. Wilson said it shows Curtis can work in a bipartisan way to get things done.
"I think he acknowledges that being Republican with an 'R' by your name does not automatically make you a keeper of all the answers," she said.
David Nelson, a pharmaceutical representative from Salem, Utah, said he thinks Curtis' Democratic past shows he's not a conservative. Nelson said it's OK that Ainge hasn't held public office, and he's voting for the younger candidate because of his "business-minded" outlook.
"I think that you don't have to have all the experience in the world to go to Washington and work for the people," he said. "You just have to be in tune with the pulse of the people."
Martin Wilkins, a 39-year-old UPS worker from Orem, said Ainge seems like a nice guy but is too young and inexperienced.
"In the political world, he's just a kid and no one is going to listen to him," Wilkins said. "If you go into college and a kindergarten student starts trying to order people around, no one is going to listen."
Wilkins said he voted for Herrod because seems like the kind of person who tells it straight, whether it's popular or not.
The winner coming out of Tuesday's race will face a well-funded Democratic opponent who initially jumped in to challenge Chaffetz earlier this year. Kathryn Allen socked away more than half a million dollars after she called out Chaffetz early this year for his comments suggesting people should spend money on health care instead of iPhones.
Chaffetz made a surprise announcement that he was resigning at the end of June, citing a desire to spend more time with family after eight years in Congress. He's since taken a role as a Fox News commentator and announced he will be one of six visiting fellows at Harvard University this fall.
Several third-party candidates are also running, including Jim Bennett, the son of the late former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, a longtime Republican who lost re-election in 2010, the first of several GOP candidates ousted in tea-party fueled wave. Jim Bennett is running as the first candidate of a new centrist party, the United Utah Party.
Associated Press writer Brady McCombs contributed to this report.