Republican candidates vying for a spot on the November ballot to replace Jason Chaffetz addressed myriad topics during the 3rd Congressional District Republican debate, but by the end of the night, substantial differences between the candidates’ policy goals remained to be seen.
Provo Mayor John Curtis, former state legislator Chris Herrod and political newcomer Tanner Ainge all agreed that Obamacare should be repealed and replaced, that the designation of Bears Ears National Monument was a federal overreach, and that both imposing sanctions on Russia and pulling out of the Paris Agreement were good moves. All three emphasized local government is often the best place for decisions to be made.
Still, a few subtle differences in policies panned out over the course of the debate, hosted by the Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics.
All three candidates called for strengthening the border. Herrod said he absolutely supports Trump’s plan to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, while Curtis and Ainge said they supported strengthening the border through effective technology and methods.
They also emphasized the need to, in the words of Mayor Curtis, “reform the system” so immigrants can come to the United States legally. No candidate offered specifics as to how they would reform the system.
Herrod said his plan would allow immigrants to come forth, put up a bond, put their affairs in order and return to their previous country. He said immigrants are often deterred from “getting square with the law” because they have overstayed their visas and do not want to suffer the penalty, which includes not being able to return for a specified amount of time.
Herrod said the real victims of illegal immigration are the working class, the middle class and legal immigrants.
Curtis’ policy proposal included an element he called restitution.
“Every act we have in society where somebody breaks the law, we show them to how to make it right,” Curtis said. “We need to show them how to make a wrong a right, so they can get their lives back in order.”
Ainge emphasized enforcing existing laws.
“We cannot have millions of people living in the shadows,” Ainge said.
He also said there is a demand for tens of thousands of engineers and other workers in the tech economy in Utah, but the current legal immigration process makes it difficult for these workers to immigrate.
A heated moment of the night came on the topic of sanctuary cities, when Herrod took a jab at Curtis.
“(Provo City’s) police chief has said that it will not work with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) on immigration issues,” Herrod said. “We cannot adopt sanctuary policies.”
Curtis was quick to respond to the accusation.
“There’s at least a hundred police officers who would be extremely offended if somebody said that Provo was a sanctuary city,” he said. “When I came into this office, Provo was a sanctuary city, and I worked my tail off to get it off that list. It wasn’t easy to do. We instituted things such as E-Verify, worked with ICE. I’m proud to say that we are not a sanctuary city, nor do we condone that here in Provo City.”
Ainge also said he was against sanctuary cities.
When asked about the U.S. role in international affairs, the candidates emphasized different areas.
Curtis said he backed President Trump’s moves to show international leadership. Quoting Ronald Reagan, Curtis said the U.S. needs to achieve “peace through strength.”
Ainge also called for American leadership internationally, voicing concern for the “so many evils” in the world and threats to national security. He said the U.S. faces the challenge of dealing with Russia and Iran, and the U.S. needs to stand firm with Israel, “our strongest ally.” He also said everything should be done to stop Kim Jong-un from increasing his capabilities.
Herrod also mentioned Russia, calling Putin a “very good” chess player. He said Congress has been distracted by the Russian accusations of collusion.
“We’re not talking about the real issues,” Herrod said.
Herrod said the U.S. is overly extended in the world, and “we don’t understand Islam, and we’re in places that we shouldn’t be.” He said he is afraid the “over-allocated” military is not well prepared for a major problem such as North Korea.
“I will do everything I can to support our military, but I’ll use them as seldom as possible,” he said.
“It’s actually pretty simple: if it’s not in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, the federal government should not be doing it,” Herrod said when asked about the role of the federal government in education.
Herrod said he would eliminate the Department of Education, and he would like to send half of its funding as block grants to states for education and half to the national deficit.
“There should be absolutely no role of the federal government,” Herrod said.
Curtis likewise emphasized local control, though he said no funds should be sent to Washington — all should remain local.
“Here is the role for the federal government: they should get on an airplane, they should come to Provo and see how we do it right here, and then take it to the rest of the country, and show them that parents and local school districts know what’s best for their kids, and they know what decisions should be made for them,” Curtis said.
Ainge emphasized the importance of great teachers and local control at the K-12 level.
Ainge was the only candidate to address post-secondary education.
“Our state has some unique advantages in providing the workforce to our intelligence agencies and our law enforcement agencies,” Ainge said.
Ainge said Utah has many post-secondary students who speak foreign languages, have foreign cultural fluency and who can pass background checks.
“This is a great opportunity for us to continue to build these partnerships with the federal government and supply the workforce that helps keeps our country safe,” Ainge said.
He also said many college students rely on Pell Grants — a “great program.”
While the debate was supposed to be a platform for the candidates to differentiate themselves, their stances on the issues they discussed were often similar, if not the same — all of them trying to brand themselves as proven conservatives.
Throughout the evening, Ainge emphasized he operates only by conservative principles.
“What I’m going to do is fight as a conservative to cut spending, to cut taxes and reduce the national debt,” Ainge said.
He also said he has never raised taxes, and he never will. Having never held political office, he has never had the opportunity to do so.
When speaking of putting a constitutional check on the presidential administration, Herrod said he has experience implementing conservative tenets.
“You know, this is one of the things that I think is one of my strengths,” Herrod said, a phrase he used on many occasions throughout the debate, often in reference to his experience in the state legislature. “Everybody talks about what they’re going to do. I’ve done these things.”
Curtis often used opportunities to discuss how he has tried to implement conservative principles in Provo City.
“Welcome to the city where we’re doing more with less … and our property tax rate is lower than it was eight years ago,” Curtis said in his opening statements.
When discussing how to work with people across the aisle, Ainge took a jab at opponent Curtis.
“While I think it’s important to work together, I don’t think you actually have to switch sides,” he said.
Ainge said Curtis ran as a Democrat for the state Senate in 2000 and served as the Utah County chair for the Democratic Party. Ainge’s assertion was met with a mixed reaction from the audience.
Curtis’ response garnered him some laughs.
“Like Jason Chaffetz, like Ronald Reagan, like Donald Trump, I once had a fling on the dark side,” Curtis said. “That was 20 years ago, and I’ve never looked back. Some people will never forgive me for that.”
Herrod jumped to Ainge’s side in his response.
“As somebody who has been a conservative while I served and gotten beat up because I’m conservative … I am concerned that when people say they are conservative and their actions are not, it is a problem,” Herrod said.
Republican voters will cast their ballots for the special primary election on Aug. 15.