SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The mayor in the Mormon stronghold of Provo won a three-way Republican primary Tuesday in the race to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, putting him on track to clinch the congressional seat in the general election in the overwhelming GOP district.
John Curtis pulled off the win despite being dogged by attack ads from deep-pocketed outside groups in a race whose three candidates were emblematic of the divisions roiling the GOP under President Donald Trump.
Curtis is a former Democrat who was the most moderate of the Republican candidates running in Utah's 3rd Congressional District, which Chaffetz represented until he abruptly resigned in June, citing a desire to spend more time with family. Moderate Utah Republicans including Gov. Gary Herbert backed Curtis, the only one of the three Republican candidates who didn't vote for Trump.
As supporters erupted into loud cheers at his Provo election night party, Curtis said in a phone interview with The Associated Press that his victory showed that voters like what he's accomplished as mayor and want to see him do the same in Washington. He said it also proved that his campaign strategy worked.
"It was Utah-based, Utah-principled, Utah-endorsed. That's what they want," Curtis said. "They didn't like the negativity."
Curtis defeated 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. They split support during the campaign from more conservative Republicans.
Curtis had captured about 41 percent of the vote while Herrod and Ainge split the rest, according to unofficial results Tuesday.
Ainge conceded but Herrod held out hope based on tens of thousands of ballots not yet counted in the county with the most voters.
"We had very good internal polls and so, we're not quite ready to get there," Herrod said.
Ainge said Curtis is the type of voice needed in the district.
"I'm glad that we have someone who's been successful in the business world like John, who knows how to balance a budget and understands the entrepreneurial spirit of this district, who will represent us," Ainge said.
Utah's special election is one of seven this year to fill vacancies in the U.S. House and Senate, five of which opened up when elected officials took posts in Trump's administration. Voters in Alabama were also voting Tuesday in primaries to select party nominees for the U.S. Senate seat that previously belonged to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Chaffetz, a five-term Republican, carved out a reputation for using the House Oversight committee he chaired to run aggressive investigations of Hillary Clinton before the 2016 presidential elections. 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.
His departure opened up a congressional seat in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats 5-to-1 in an area that stretches from the Salt Lake City suburbs and several ski towns southeast to Provo and Utah coal country.
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 heavily Republican Utah when Democrats and Republicans face off in an occasional close race.
Curtis, 57, the target of most of the out-of-state attack ads, 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. He said he now identifies as a conservative Republican and notes that Ronald Reagan, Trump and Chaffetz were all Democrats at one point.
"I've got a message to those PACs in Washington, D.C. and those special interests: This is my town, this is my district. Go home. You wasted your money," Curtis said in a victory speech in Provo.
Curtis has served eight years as the mayor of Provo, where he helped negotiate a deal for Google to take over the city's troubled fiber-optic system and instead give the city of about 117,000 people the company's high-speed Google Fiber internet service, including free basic internet for all residents.
Ada Wilson, a 59-year-old Republican homemaker from Orem, said Curtis' stint across the aisle was one of the reasons she voted 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 Muir, the city treasurer for the Salt Lake City suburb of Cottonwood Heights, said he voted for Curtis because of his experience running a city and that he wasn't worried about Curtis' Democratic past.
"There are a lot of good Democrats in the past," said Muir, a longtime Republican. "The person is more important and their character."
Herrod, 51, and Ainge, 33, both voted for Trump, but all three candidates say they support the president's agenda, which includes plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, revamp the tax code and repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Curtis moves on to face a well-funded Democratic opponent who initially announced her intent to challenge Chaffetz in 2018 but now is a candidate in November's special election. Kathryn Allen socked away more than half a million dollars after she called out Chaffetz earlier this year for his comments suggesting people should spend money on health care instead of iPhones.
Allen released a statement late Tuesday congratulating Curtis and vowing to keep her campaign positive, focusing on solutions to health care and other problems.
Several third-party candidates are also running in November, 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.
Bennett congratulated Curtis but said in a statement that as a good man, Curtis should feel uncomfortable in the "Party of Trump."
Curtis said he's looking forward to facing opponents such as Bennett, who will challenge him for moderate voters.
"I think we've got a great message for all of Utah," Curtis said.
Associated Press writer Brady McCombs contributed to this report.