Closely-watched race in suburban Utah hits debate stage

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah’s lone congressional Democrat faced his Republican challenger on the debate stage Monday night as the candidates vie for the closely watched suburban Salt Lake City seat.

U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams highlighted times he had voted against his party leadership as he framed himself as a moderate. Republican former NFL player Burgess Owens, meanwhile, worked to tie the Congressman to Democratic leaders and stood by his characterization of them as “sociopaths.”

Owens, a Black conservative who grew up in the segregated South, criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and said the idea that there is systematic racism in the U.S. is “totally false.”

McAdams countered by saying the nation has more progress to make on race. “We can do better at making people feel they have the opportunities that all of us have,” he said.

The Congressman criticized his opponent’s appearances on two online programs that have been linked to QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory that’s increasingly creeping into mainstream politics. Owens said he wasn’t aware of those connections and was simply trying to get his conservative message out.

“I still don’t know what QAnon means or what it’s all about, and it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t reflect on anything I’m doing right now,” Owens said.

McAdams said that raises questions about his judgment. “At what point are you responsible for the decisions you make?”

Owens steered the debate back to Congressional politics by criticizing McAdams’ vote in favor of impeaching President Donald Trump despite a then-robust economy.

The Democrat said he stands by the vote, though he had some criticism for the process. He also pilloried Congress for not yet passing another coronavirus-relief package. McAdams, who was hospitalized with the virus himself, backed mask wearing but did not say whether he would support a statewide mandate for Utah amid record high case counts.

Owens said he opposes a mask mandate, though he supported businesses that do require them.

The two men also sparred over then-President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, with McAdams saying the Republican once supported a repeal that would remove protections for patients with preexisting conditions. “People are afraid, they’re worried they might lose life-sustaining access to medication,” he said.

Owens denied that, saying he supports reform rather than repeal and wants to keep protections for people with preexisting conditions. “Let’s not let fear drive us,” he said. “It’s not an issue.”

McAdams is running for a second term after becoming part of the blue wave that helped take control of the U.S. House for the Democrats when he won a narrow race in 2018. Owens is a Trump supporter and commentator on Fox News who handily won the GOP nomination by running to the right of three opponents.

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