John Curtis gets the frontrunner treatment during Senate GOP primary debate

Jun 10, 2024, 9:46 PM

United States Senate candidates John Curtis, Brad Wilson, Jason Walton and Trent Staggs speak at th...

United States Senate candidates John Curtis, Brad Wilson, Jason Walton and Trent Staggs speak at the Utah Taxpayers Association Annual Taxes Now Conference at The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 10, 2024. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A mostly civil debate between the four Republican U.S. Senate candidates from Utah turned rancorous in the waning moments, as Trent Staggs used his closing statement to appear to accuse Rep. John Curtis of wrongdoing related to stock trading in 2020.

Candidates were each given 60 seconds to issue a closing statement at the end of the televised debate, with Staggs speaking last, per the results of a random drawing.

“You know, on March 4, 2020, Abbot Laboratories was awarded a federal grant. On that same day, John Curtis purchased stock in that company,” Staggs began. “This is the problem in Congress. At a time when somebody should be looking out for their constituents, they end up looking out for their own profit.”

“You have to let me respond to that,” Curtis said, as moderator Glen Mills began to wrap up the telecast. “Trent, that is such a low shot. You wait until I have no response, you throw something out I can’t respond to. You accused me of a felony here tonight — you better have very good evidence. And I’d like to challenge you to produce that evidence that somehow I’ve committed a felony. If that’s how you’re going to work in the Senate, the people of Utah are going to be very disappointed.”

The pair of candidates did not shake hands after the debate concluded, though Curtis could be heard saying “cheap shot” as he passed Staggs’ podium.

After the debate, Staggs told reporters he made a “factual statement” about Curtis and was not accusing the congressman of a felony and when asked by KSL.com if he was accusing the congressman of insider trading, Staggs said: “Look, what I’ve said is, on the same day the company was given a grant, he traded stock.”

Curtis didn’t dispute the stock purchase — he disclosed purchasing between $1,001 and $15,000 of Abbot stock to the House clerk in 2020 — but said he’s since divested of such investments, after trying several things to “isolate myself from criticism” about trading stocks as a member of Congress. KSL.com reported last year the congressman sold up to $15,000 of First Republic Bank stock as the bank was on the verge of collapse, though a spokesman said the sale was made by a broker without input from Curtis.

“That was a cheap shot,” Curtis said of Staggs’ comments following the debate. “I think the thing that’s unfortunate about it is, Mr. Staggs, his whole campaign is about the dirtiness of Washington and how he’s going to go fix that. And I think he really showed his hand. … Let’s be straight up. If you feel that way let’s say it, but don’t do what you did.”

It wasn’t the only attack Curtis, the perceived frontrunner, took from his opponents. Former Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson told reporters the Senate race appears to be “for sale,” criticizing millions of dollars that have been spent in favor of Curtis.

“To be honest, the thing that’s been absent from all the reporting on this race, that’s been absent from all the discussion about this race, is the amount of special interest money that’s been spent on John Curtis’ campaign,” he said. “You’ve got close to $7 million of East Coast special interest money, and it looks to me like there’s this banner kind of waving over the state of Utah that says: ‘U.S. Senate seats for sale.’ And I don’t think that’s right.”

Although Wilson himself loaned his campaign at least $2 million, he said “there’s a big difference” between that and the money spent on Curtis through super PACs.

“I’m not going to be apologetic for the record amount of money that I raised in the first six months of my campaign from Utahns,” he said of his own fundraising. “Those are people that know me, wanted me to be back in Washington and I think still do.”

Curtis himself said at least two-thirds of his own campaign donations have come from Utahns, and said he can’t control super PAC spending or coordinate with those groups.

“Let’s admit it,” he said, “there’s some jealousy in some of those comments. Who wouldn’t want that type of money coming to support them? Let’s also be very clear. People know what they’re going to get with John Curtis more than any other candidate up here.”

Recent polling shows Curtis with a plurality of support, trailed by Staggs, the mayor of Riverton, Wilson and businessman Jason Walton, but at least a third of voters are still undecided.

The debate, hosted by the nonpartisan Utah Debate Commission, was one of the last chances for each candidate to stand out, as primary ballots have already been mailed to registered voters.

The contest caps off a full day of debates, after candidates vying for the Republican nominations for Congressional Districts 1 and 2 squared off earlier in the day at PBS Utah, in the Eccles Broadcast Center on the University of Utah campus.

Statewide candidates for attorney general and governor will debate Tuesday, and five Republican candidates for the 3rd Congressional District will go head-to-head Wednesday evening.

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John Curtis gets the frontrunner treatment during Senate GOP primary debate