Republican candidates for Utah's open US House seat split on aid for Ukraine

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — All five Republicans battling for Utah's only open U.S. House seat agreed in a debate Wednesday that they see an urgent need to reduce federal spending, but only some said cutting military aid to Ukraine would be an effective way to achieve that goal.

The crowded pool of candidates is vying to represent Utah's sweeping 3rd District, which spans the entire eastern border of the state and groups vastly different communities, from the winter resort town of Park City, to the urban center of Provo, down to the red rock recreation hub of Moab.

At the April GOP convention, state Sen. Mike Kennedy earned the official party nod for the seat U.S. Rep. John Curtis is vacating to run for U.S. Senate. But in a district that represents such a wide range of viewpoints and walks of life, Kennedy's endorsement from delegates, who tend to lean farther right than Republican voters, may not be enough to carry him through the June 25 primary.

He was joined on the debate stage Wednesday by four candidates who had already guaranteed their spots on the primary ballot before the convention by gathering signatures.

The winner of the Republican primary will face Democratic nominee Glenn Wright, a former Summit County councilmember, in November. The GOP candidate is strongly favored to win in a district that has not been represented by a Democrat since 1997.

Among the Republican contenders is Stewart Peay, an attorney and former U.S. Army captain from Alpine who is endorsed by his wife's uncle, retiring U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney. While Peay said previously that Romney's endorsement was a game changer for his campaign, he presented himself Wednesday as more conservative-leaning than his famously moderate family member.

State Auditor John Dougall similarly leaned in to conservative talking points despite having built a social media strategy around his criticism of certain Republican-backed legislation.

A series of skits shows Dougall reading a newspaper on the toilet and emerging from a bathroom stall to air his frustrations about being the state official tasked with enforcing a ban on transgender people using public restrooms or changing rooms inconsistent with their birth sex. He calls the state Legislature an “invasive and overly aggressive” body that he says too often fails to seek input from those most affected by policy.

Dougall's “bathroom monitor” character has boosted his name recognition significantly and has caught the attention of many moderate voters eager to back someone willing to challenge GOP hardliners. But Dougall refrained from taking any jabs at his party during the debate, instead touting his anti-abortion views and years of auditing experience that he said will help him reduce federal spending.

Cutting military aid to Ukraine as it continues to fend off a Russian invasion is not the way to do that, he said.

Peay agreed and urged Congress to keep sending weapons and ammunition to help the Ukrainian military. He and Case Lawrence, founder of a nationwide empire of indoor trampoline parks, stressed that withdrawing U.S. support would demonstrate weakness on the world stage.

“I don't believe in foreign aid. I believe in foreign investment, investment in American interests,” Lawrence said. “Future aid to Ukraine will be based on facts on the ground and how those affect American interests.”

Kennedy and JR Bird, mayor of the northeast Utah town of Roosevelt, said that while it pains them to see Ukraine devastated by war, it is not in the best interest of U.S. officials to continue funding their fight.

Republicans in Congress have been similarly split on whether to keep sending urgently needed weaponry to Ukraine. The Ukrainian military endured major setbacks during a monthslong funding impasse on Capitol Hill and has since burned through foreign aid faster than expected.

Bird, who promoted himself as the only candidate from a rural part of the district, said the U.S. needs to shift focus from military funding to hitting Russia with stronger sanctions. He criticized President Joe Biden's administration for what he sees as throwing money at the problem when there are more strategic ways for the U.S. to assert its influence.

Kennedy agreed, adding that he would urge the U.S. to seize Russian assets and “make them pay for the mess that they've created for us.”

“We cannot be the police officer of the whole world,” Kennedy said. “We don't have the money to do all this. Our grandchildren don't deserve us to rack up more national debt to support international wars that are not directly in our national security interest.”

Wednesday concluded a marathon week of Republican primary debates in Utah. Challengers for two of Utah’s four congressional seats faced off Monday, followed by the four Republicans battling for Romney's open U.S. Senate seat. Candidates for governor and the open attorney general position debated Tuesday.

Hannah Schoenbaum, The Associated Press