SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Black conservative running for Congress in Utah is set to speak at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday. Burgess Owens is in a race that could test GOP’s ability to recapture the suburban districts that powered 2018’s blue wave and gave Democrats control of the House.
Owens is a former NFL player and Fox News commentator and supporter of President Donald Trump. He handily won the Republican primary by running to the right of his opponents. The political newcomer trying to reclaim the suburban Salt Lake City district once held by Mia Love, another Black conservative who was the first Black Republican woman elected to the House.
She lost in a tight race in 2018 to a moderate Democrat, Ben McAdams.
Since his primary victory, Owens, 69, has come under scrutiny for his May appearance on a YouTube show tied to QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory that’s been increasingly creeping into politics.
Owens didn’t know about the show’s ties to QAnon, didn’t discuss it on the program and doesn’t believe in it himself, spokesman Jesse Ranney said. But some Republicans are pushing back on QAnon and the appearance could become a liability in the swing suburban district.
“The Owens campaign is going to have to be very careful,” said Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University who’s had informal advisory conversations with the campaign.
One former Republican state lawmaker called on Owens’ appearance to be pulled from the convention, saying even the appearance of a connection with QAnon should disqualify him. But Trump has suggested he appreciated supporters of the theory backing his candidacy, and there is no indication Owens’ recorded five-minute speech will not be presented.
The convention has featured other Republicans of color as Trump seeks to expand his voting base, including Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants.
Owens grew up in segregated Tallahassee, Florida, earned a football scholarship to the University of Miami and later helped the Oakland Raiders win the 1980 Super Bowl. He converted to the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints near the end of his football career.
He has mentioned his athletic career during appearances on Fox News, where he disagreed with athletes kneeling during the National Anthem in support of Black Lives Matter. During a June primary debate, Owens answered a question about bipartisanship in part by saying he refused to negotiate with “people who hate our country” and decried “Marxists and socialists.”
In the general election, he’ll be facing McAdams, a former mayor who was one of several Democrats who flipped Congressional seats in red-leaning districts in 2018 by focusing on kitchen-table issues like health care and by breaking with party leaders at times.
This year, both candidates face new terrain amid the coronavirus pandemic and protests over police brutality continue around the country, including the Salt Lake City suburbs.
Owens will have to walk a careful line on Trump, rallying the president’s supporters even as he reaches out to voters in a state skeptical of him. It was a dilemma for Love, who was critical of Trump at times, including when he used an expletive to refer to her parents’ home country of Haiti.
Owens has backed the president and received a congratulatory tweet when he won the primary and had Donald Trump Jr. campaign for him.
McAdams could have a similar challenge working to keep liberal voters concerned about issues like police reform while reassuring moderates he won’t veer too far left. The race is now considered a toss-up.
“This election is going to be really interesting for the different intersections of race and political issues that are so salient in American politics right now,” Cann said.