SALT LAKE CITY — The Republican mayor of the Mormon stronghold of Provo, Utah, breezed to a special election victory Tuesday to replace former U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz in a heavily GOP congressional district.
John Curtis had a 30 percentage point lead over Democrat Kathryn Allen, unofficial results showed. Third-party candidate Jim Bennett, a centrist and the son of former longtime U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, finished a distant third.
Curtis’ opponents had tried to tie him to President Donald Trump, who got a lukewarm reception from Utah conservatives during the 2016 presidential race. Curtis didn’t vote for Trump but said he supported the president’s agenda.
In his victory speech before a packed ballroom in downtown Provo, Curtis read a series of 10 pledges that included staying accessible and serving the under-represented.
“It means if you’re not white, Mormon or male, I am still here for you,” said Curtis, 57. “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.”
Curtis, who will have to run for re-election in 2018, hinted at the fine line he’ll have to walk between supporting and distancing himself from the president by vowing to be a unifier.
“We need bridge builders, not bomb throwers,” said Curtis, who was once a Democrat.
Curtis, who ran a shooting-range business before serving eight years as Provo mayor, said significant moral concerns kept him from voting for the president. But, he has said he supports the president’s agenda and has repeated Trump refrains to “drain the swamp” and “build the wall.”
Curtis is expected to be sworn in quickly as Republicans controlling the House hope to tackle an ambitious agenda before year’s end. The reliably red Utah congressional seat has sat empty since the end of June, when Chaffetz abruptly resigned to spend more time with family. He quickly became a paid Fox News contributor. Chaffetz held the seat for eight years and was known for persistent investigations into Hillary Clinton’s emails and her handling of a terrorist attack in Benghazi in his role as chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
The district, which has five registered Republicans for every registered Democrat, stretches from several Salt Lake City suburbs and several ski towns southeast to Provo, coal country and the tourist-heavy red rock deserts.
Curtis said he wants to start working on the big issues in Congress such as health care and tax reform. He said he thinks his experience in business and in city government resonated with voters.
“People know who I am,” Curtis told The Associated Press after his victory. “There’s a lot of work to get done and I think I feel like I can do it.”
Allen, the Democrat who jumped in to challenge Chaffetz, raised half a million dollars for her campaign earlier this year. The family physician seized on his comments suggesting people should spend their money on health insurance instead of iPhones. But her heavy fundraising stalled after Chaffetz left office.
Allen said she’s disappointed in the result but proud of the campaign she ran. She lamented that it’s hard for a Democrat to win conservative Utah County, the heart of the congressional district.
In her call to congratulate Curtis, she said she told him she hopes he has the courage to stand up to Trump when necessary.
Allen said Curtis told her to call him on it if he fails.
Bennett ran as the first candidate of a new political party he helped found, United Utah, after suing the state to win a place on the ballot. He worked for his father’s campaigns but left the Republican Party when it picked Trump as its presidential candidate.
Bennett said in a statement emailed after the election that he intends to stay involved with the new party, which he believes has a bright future. Party chairman Richard Davis said the organization has become a “real force” in Utah politics in just a few months thanks to the message of “practical, not partisan.”
Curtis, who said he’ll put Utah principles above politics and his party, he said he would support bipartisan efforts to reform President Barack Obama’s health care law, though he would have preferred it had been repealed.
He supports Trump’s call to strengthen border security, including the controversial plan for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, but he’s said a wall may not make sense in some areas and technology may be needed to secure those spots.
Ada Wilson, a 59-year-old homemaker from Orem and a Republican, said she agrees with Bennett’s principles and considered voting for him but worried he was a bit too brash. Instead, Wilson mailed in her ballot last week for Curtis.
“I just think that he was a better leader, and more articulate, and better able to play the part that he needs to play in Congress and among his peers,” Wilson said. “He just presents himself well and is moderate enough that he can work with people of both parties.”
Associated Press writer Brady McCombs contributed to this story.
Follow Price on Twitter at https://twitter.com/michellelprice .