SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Republican Utah mayor celebrating a primary win will have to fend off competitors linking him to embattled President Donald Trump as he prepares for the general election to replace Jason Chaffetz in the U.S. House of Representatives.
John Curtis, the popular mayor of the Mormon stronghold of Provo, won a GOP primary Tuesday in Utah after fending off two challengers in Utah's 3rd Congressional District who were both backed by further-right conservatives. The challengers tried to undercut him for having once been a Democrat.
The win gives him a heavy advantage in the November special election in the district, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 5-to-1. But Curtis's opponents have already cast him as the candidate of Trump and his party.
Jim Bennett, the first candidate of a new centrist United Utah Party, congratulated Curtis but said Wednesday that as a good man, Curtis should feel uncomfortable in the "Party of Trump."
"Mayor Curtis is going to be just one more log on the fire of Republican dysfunction," Bennett added.
Democratic Dr. Kathryn Allen agreed Wednesday, saying Curtis can't avoid being linked to the president.
"Members of the GOP seem to fall in line, no matter what," she said. "It's kind of hard to believe that another representative from the same party would behave any differently."
Curtis has walked a line between party loyalty and distancing himself from the turbulence surrounding the president, a similar tension Chaffetz faced before he abruptly resigned in June, saying he needed to spend more time with family.
Before resigning, the five-term Republican carved out a reputation for using the House Oversight committee he chaired to run aggressive investigations of Hillary Clinton. Chaffetz took a tepid approach to Trump's alleged conflicts of interest and ties to Russia.
During last year's election, Chaffetz rescinded his endorsement of Trump after recordings surfaced of the president bragging about groping women, but Chaffetz later re-endorsed the president.
Utah's 3rd Congressional District, stretching from Salt Lake City suburbs and several ski towns southeast to the Mormon-stronghold of Provo, Utah's coal country and the tourist-heavy red rock deserts, is heavily conservative but lukewarm on Trump.
The president won the district in November, but he did so with only 47 percent of the vote — far below Republican presidential candidates in 2012 and 2008, who collected more than two-thirds of the vote.
In the race to replace Chaffetz, Curtis was the only GOP candidate who didn't vote for Trump, saying he had significant moral concerns.
Opponent Tanner Ainge, a business consultant and the Sarah Palin-endorsed son of Boston Celtics President Danny Ainge, voted for the president, as did former state lawmaker Chris Herrod, who was known for strict immigration positions and spoke at a Trump rally.
While Trump has endorsed candidates in other special elections this year, including a Republican runoff this week for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, the president didn't weigh in on Utah's primary until after Curtis won, tweeting him a message of congratulations Wednesday.
Curtis, 57, said he's happy to support Trump's agenda, including tax reform, his Supreme Court nominations and calls to "drain the swamp." But he hopes that turmoil surrounding the White House doesn't derail the GOP agenda.
"I'll work hard to avoid the distractions and move those agenda items forward," Curtis said in an interview last week with The Associated Press. "I believe that the district, I think, generally supports the Trump agenda, but they struggle with some of the distractions."
Bennett said Wednesday that Curtis is "going to run into the same problem that Jason Chaffetz did: It's going to be very hard for him to maintain principles when the leader of his party is unprincipled."
Curtis said he thinks allowing the special prosecutor to continue investigating possible ties between the president's campaign and Russia "is the best way to exonerate President Trump" and will give the American people confidence.
He said he supports Trump's plan to beef up border security, including plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. But Curtis said it may be appropriate to use various kinds of technology instead of a wall to secure parts of the border.
He also said he'd prefer that Republicans in Congress repeal the Affordable Care Act, but added: "We've shown that that may be a difficult thing. So I do think a viable option is to simply say, 'Ok, let's just start making changes' " to President Barack Obama's health law.
On Tuesday night, shortly before giving his victory speech, Curtis called the president's equivocation on violence that erupted at a weekend gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, "totally unacceptable."
Curtis said "there's no room for racism, especially neo-Nazi and white supremacy."
He said he's looking forward to facing opponents who will challenge him for moderate voters, saying "we've got a great message for all of Utah."
While he explained away his time as a Democratic legislative candidate and former party officer as a "fling on the dark side," it earned him favor with some Republicans in Utah who want to see bipartisanship.
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.
Associated Press writer Brady McCombs contributed to this report.