In the race for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, Republican incumbent Chris Stewart faces a tough challenger in businesswoman and philanthropist Charlene Albarran. But in an election year dominated by the presidential race, the problem for some down-ballot candidates, even candidates for Congress, is that some voters just don’t know who they are.
The day before early voting began, I caught up with Jean Forney and Shauna Groberg at the Magna Kennecott Senior Center and asked them about the candidates they would be choosing between.
When I asked if she knew who Chris Stewart is, Forney said she didn’t know.
“Have you heard that name before?” I asked her.
“No,” Forney said.
I turned to Groberg and asked the same question.
“Chris Stewart? Yes, I have,” she said.
But Groberg wasn’t sure if Stewart was the person representing her in Congress.
As a resident of Magna, Groberg is represented by Chris Stewart in Congress. And though she hasn’t filled out her mail-in ballot yet, Groberg says she’ll probably vote for Stewart, since she generally votes straight Republican.
Stewart was first elected in 2012 and is seeking a third term in the U.S. House.
“We have had an effective term,” he says. “Especially for someone who’s only been in Congress in their second term.”
He defends his record—which includes funding the fight against the Zika virus and protecting the nation through his work on the House Intelligence Committee.
Stewart’s Democratic challenger is Charlene Albarran, an entrepreneur who’s started several businesses and has opened two homeless shelters for women. She’s never held public office, but promises that if elected, she’d reach across the aisle to get things accomplished.
Each candidate has challenged the other on their ability to represent constituents in the 2nd district.
Albarran rents an apartment in Salt Lake City and owns a multi-million-dollar home outside district boundaries in Park City, and Stewart has used her residence as a way to challenge whether she really understands voters in the 2nd district. The issue came up in a recent debate.
“And it matters,” Stewart said at the debate, “because once again, we want to understand, do you know us? Are you our neighbor? Do you understand our problems because are you one of us?”
Albarran says Stewart is a hardline conservative who doesn’t represent the interests of average Utahns.
“He is very right-wing,” she says. “He represents a small sliver of the constituency. I represent all of the people in the middle ground. I will work on a bipartisan level, bringing Democrats and Republicans together”
Stewart says he does represent conservative values because he represents a generally conservative district—even if that district includes some progressive areas of Salt Lake City.
“And we try our best to represent everyone,” Stewart says, “knowing that you can’t represent everyone perfectly because we don’t all agree on every issue. But we always try to listen to people. I think I’ve held more town hall meetings than the rest of the delegation combined. We’re very proud of that, the fact that we’re out there all the time listening to folks.”
Utah’s 2nd district is one of the largest congressional districts in the country. It covers parts of Salt Lake City and Farmington in the northern portion before fanning out to encompass most of rural southwestern Utah, including Tooele, Manti and St. George.
It’s also a district that’s 15% Hispanic. Albarran has lived in Mexico City and is fluent in Spanish. She’s making a play for Hispanic and other minority voters, as evidenced by a campaign video which shows people voting for Albarran on their mail-in ballots.
“I’m voting for Charlene Albarran because she represents all minorities and she gets things done,” says one voter in the video.
“Yo estoy votando por Charlene Albarran porque a cumple el trabajo,” says another, which translates roughly to “I’m voting for Charlene Albarran because she gets the job done.”
But University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless says historically only about half of registered voters who identify as Latino actually vote.
“Now this year could be different,” Chambless says. “Because of what has been happening at the presidential level. When I talk to Hispanics, they know about Donald Trump. They know what Donald Trump has said about Mexico and a wall and refugees.”
But Chambless isn’t sure increased turnout among Hispanic voters will translate to other races, and how much Albarran will benefit from it.
Donald Trump has also caused a division in the Republican Party this year. Congressman Stewart was one of several Utah elected officials who reluctantly endorsed the Republican presidential nominee. But after seeing the video of Trump making vulgar remarks about women, Stewart called on him to withdraw and allow his running mate Mike Pence to continue at the top of the ticket.
“But that’s not going to happen,” Stewart says. “I have my ballot on my desk at home. I look at it every morning when I leave and every night when I come home and I’m genuinely undecided right now.”
For Albarran’s part, she says she agrees with Hillary Clinton’s policy platform “to stand up for the middle class, to stand up for paid paternity and maternity leave, for equal pay for equal work, to stand up for our environment.”
Albarran has put $400,000 of her own money into her campaign—about half of what Stewart has raised from donors and political action committees.
Polls released early in the campaign cycle showed Stewart with a double digit lead.
Tim Chambless says the one of the biggest challenges both candidates face is name recognition.
“Most residents really do not know Congressman Stewart and they really do not know his challenger, Charlene Albarran,” says Chambless.
Back at the senior center in Magna, Susan Geyer, an Independent, has already cast her ballot.
“I voted for the democrat,” Geyer tells me, “because Chris Stewart, I haven’t seen much that he’s done. That’s why.”
Whether that lack of recognition will convert to votes against Stewart like Geyer’s, or votes in his favor by straight-ticket Republican voters is the question.
Either way, voters in the 2nd district will have their voices heard on Nov. 8th.