SALT LAKE CITY — Republican Rep. Chris Stewart and his Democratic challenger Kael Weston have a few things in common.
Both are authors who have experience in national defense. Weston's book "The Mirror Test" describes his seven years working for the State Department on front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan where he had some close calls. Stewart, a record-setting former Air Force pilot, has written 20 fiction and nonfiction books, including some New York Times bestsellers.
Both are native Utahns. Weston grew up in Orem and graduated from the University of Utah. Stewart comes from Cache Valley and has a degree from Utah State University.
But when it comes to politics, there's a big gap between the two major party candidates running in Utah's vast 2nd Congressional District.
For starters, Stewart favors giving President Donald Trump four more years to carry out his agenda for the country. Weston says the nation needs to be repaired and rebuilt, and that can't happen if Trump is reelected.
"I think he considers himself to be Trump's representative in Utah, not our representative in Washington," Weston said in an interview.
Stewart called that "nonsense."
The four-term congressman pointed to a "Trump loyalty index" created by Axios to rate Republican members of Congress. While Stewart voted with the president 95% of the time, he scored 68 out of 100 on the loyalty index based on reactions to seven of the president's most controversial moments. Stewart criticized Trump following the "Access Hollywood" video and after his profane comment aimed at Haiti and some African countries.
"He can make that claim, but it's not true," Stewart told KSL.
The differences between Stewart and Weston were evident during some sharp exchanges during a fast-paced debate Monday put on by the Utah Debate Commission.
"My opponent seems to have a low opinion of me. I didn't realize that until tonight," Stewart said about halfway through the hourlong debate.
"It's just a fair one," Weston said.
Libertarian J. Robert Latham also participated in the debate. He was the only third-party candidate to meet the commission's participation threshold based on its own polling. The survey of 500 registered voters released Oct. 1 showed Stewart at 47.8%, Weston at 28.4%, and Latham at 6.5%, while 17.1% were undecided.
A St. George attorney, Latham said his candidacy gives voters a real choice rather than a false choice between "imperialist party A and imperialist party B."
Latham encouraged Utahns to break the "bipartisan cycle of abuse" and vote Libertarian if "you see the two-faced tyranny I see. If you feel the political control gimmicks, cruelty and injustice I feel."
Stewart and Weston sparred over the federal government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, court packing and health care, among other issues.
Trump had a responsibility to act on COVID-19, and he did, Stewart said. The president's travel ban on China was the right thing to do. He called Operation Warp Speed — the plan to develop a vaccine by January — a "remarkable" success. Though he conceded Republicans, Democrats, governors and the president could have done things better.
"But I think we're on a pathway now where we can look back and say thank heavens we were able to take the steps that the president did take in order to protect as many people as he did," Stewart said.
Weston said he absolutely disagrees, pointing to the number of infected people and deaths in the U.S., which now exceeds 8 million sick and 220,000 dead. He said the president hid from Americans how deadly the virus could be.
"They, Trump and Stewart, did not trust us with the truth," he said, adding "they've played games with our health."
On health care, Stewart said he has and would continue to vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act many times. He said in every case Republicans had a plan that would protect people with preexisting conditions and let young people stay on their parents' insurance until age 26.
Stewart said as a member of Congress, the law requires him to use the government insurance plan.
"I know how bad it is," he said.
Weston, who is on Obamacare's individual market, said a majority of Utahns would trade their health care for what a member of Congress has. The people who are hurting most in the district are afraid of going bankrupt if they don't have Obamacare.
"We as a party are the only ones who have a long track record of fighting for more health care, not trying to take it away," he said, adding he would be the "wall" between Republicans and the people.
Stewart sharply criticizes Democrats floating the idea of expanding the size of the U.S. Supreme Court if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed as a justice and former Vice President Joe Biden is elected president. He said it would destroy the integrity of the court.
"I think it's absurd. I think it's one of the most ridiculous and divisive and destructive ideas that's ever been suggested," he said. "It's one of those things that kind of used to be a fringe, far-left, kind of wacko idea, that now has become mainstream."
Weston said court packing wouldn't be an issue if the election could move forward the will of voters, which would be respected. After the debate, he said at this point he doesn't think it's a wise approach because he'd rather talk about COVID-19, health care and issues that unite the country.
Utah's 2nd congressional district is geographically the largest and covers the southern and western half of the state, including all of Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Millard, Piute, Sevier, Tooele, Washington and Wayne counties. It also covers parts of Davis, Juab, Salt Lake and Sanpete counties.
Stewart, 60, who serves on the House Intelligence and House Budget committees, is running for a fifth term. He said his priorities have to be dealing with the pandemic, specifically reopening schools across the country and getting small businesses not only open but profitable.
"We can't assume that COVID is on the downswing. We don't know that yet, so it's clearly got to be our first priority," he said in the interview.
Last December, he introduced the "Fairness for All Act" to protect religious freedom and LGBT rights. He also recently refiled a bill to create a sixth national park in Utah in the Grand Staircase-Escalante area. This past weekend, Trump signed his bill creating a national three-digit suicide prevention hotline.
Weston, 48, is a first-time candidate. He has put more than 6,000 miles on his 2003 Toyota Tacoma traversing the 2nd district. His parents grew up in Milford, which is part of the district, and his father is a downwinder. He believes he can be a bridge between urban and rural residents.
"I've done harder things in my life, but I think this one of the most important things that I'll ever do," he said of running for public office.
Weston said he's concerned about division in the country and "poisonous politics." He said working in Iraq and Afghanistan opened his eyes to how government policy affects people.
"Iraq taught me that when governing and policymaking fails, people can get hurt and die," he said.
During a question on the environment during the debate, Weston criticized Stewart for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds from oil and gas companies. Weston said his campaign has taken no money from political action committees, including those representing energy companies.
Stewart said those donors might be disappointed because he's willing to engage in developing geothermal, wind, solar and carbon energy.
Weston said it's fair to look at how candidates are spending and receiving money. He said he's not assuming anything about Stewart, but people ought to have access to that information.
"You're not assuming anything about me," Stewart responded. "You're just assuming other people will assume something about me."
Increased mail-in voting, COVID-19, and a variety of state-by-state election formats contribute to a unique 2020 election. As a result, it is likely that many close House and Senate races, as well as the presidency, will not be called on Nov. 3.
States may also shift in outcome in the days or weeks following the election — an expected change experts have warned about as results are returned. While human error happens, both mail-in and in-person voting have extremely low rates of fraud.
The state of Utah has used vote-by-mail since 2012. It has safeguards in place to make sure every ballot it receives is legitimate.