Analysis: 4th District features culture warrior against political pragmatist

Voters in the 4th Congressional District have a very clear choice this year. The differences between incumbent Democratic Congressman Ben McAdams and conservative Republican challenger Burgess Owens should be very apparent in the 6 p.m. debate tonight sponsored by the Utah Debate Commission.

If you were to only watch the ubiquitous campaign commercials being aired currently you’d quickly get the idea that these are two angry, mean politicians willing to tear down their opponent and say anything to get elected.

But, in reality, except for the nasty attack ads, these are both very nice people who are gentle and kind to everyone they meet. They each want to bring people together, solve problems, and deal with the big challenges facing America. It’s unfortunate that in today’s politics otherwise fine people have to descend into the gutter to try to win an election.

I got a preview of tonight’s debate by watching the Salt Lake Chamber’s candidate forum last week featuring separate discussions with McAdams and Owens. Each candidate has advantages and disadvantages. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the 4th District, but it is more evenly balanced politically, and is more moderate, than Utah’s other congressional districts. McAdams is much better known than Owens, and has been well-liked by most of his constituents since he served in the Utah Legislature and then as Salt Lake County mayor, before being elected to Congress two years ago.

The Chamber candidate forum clearly indicated that if you want someone who will go to Washington and fight for conservative values, then Owens is your guy. He’s very persuasive, describing growing up in the deep south as a black child, experiencing racism, and seeing how liberal government policies have undermined families and damaged minority communities. Owens is all about family, faith, patriotism, free enterprise, limited government and low taxes. He is a passionate conservative who believes America’s culture and values are being undermined by forces that want to change the country.

McAdams is much more of a realist and pragmatist who wants to solve problems and not worry much about political ideology or the culture wars. He talks constantly about bringing people together, bridging divides, seeking common solutions and avoiding partisanship. He is more moderate than many other Democrats and doesn’t talk much about being a Democrat or the party’s liberal leanings. Instead, he focuses on the problems that face the country and how compromise and collaboration will be required to solve them.

I found both candidates to be pleasant, knowledgeable and articulate. McAdams was more fluent about specific issues raised by the Chamber hosts, but Owens did better than I expected, even on practical business-related issues. And Owens effectively puts current issues in the context of the culture and values that guide him.

Burgess’ bankruptcies, the focus of many ads supporting McAdams, did not come up in the Chamber forum, but his financial problems will likely be raised at the debate tonight.

The debate tonight could be very important if enough voters watch it. I believe McAdams remains ahead in the race, so Owens needs a good showing to be competitive.