SALT LAKE CITY — The conspiracy theory QAnon bubbled into the forefront in a competitive race for a suburban Utah swing congressional district this week, another sign of how the baseless theory has diffused into mainstream politics.
Republican Burgess Owens has now come under scrutiny three times for media appearances related to QAnon, but it hasn’t stopped him from becoming a serious threat to first-term Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams.
Owens has called the idea that he believes in QAnon “silly,” and says appearances on online programs supporting QAnon programs are just part of his effort to get his conservative message out.
Around the country, more than two dozen congressional candidates on the ballot in November have endorsed or given credence to QAnon, according to a tally by the liberal-leaning Media Matters.
QAnon followers embrace the baseless belief that President Donald Trump is waging a secret campaign against enemies in the “deep state," an alleged secret network within the government, and a child sex trafficking ring run by satanic pedophiles and cannibals.
Most of those candidates have run poorly financed campaigns with little or no corporate or political party backing. Owens, by contrast, took in a huge $2.5 million haul in the third quarter of this year, and polling has the race at a dead heat.
For many voters in the Republican-leaning district, Owens' flirtation with QAnon doesn’t appear to be a deal breaker.
Consulting company owner Sean Thomas, 49, said he voted for Owens because he’s against the economic lockdowns imposed to fight virus.
While Thomas supports wearing masks, he labeled business closures “the worst public policy decision of my lifetime.”
He also respects Owens’ personal story of growing up Black in the Deep South and becoming a professional NFL player before converting to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Owens is now a frequent political guest on Fox News.
Thomas dismisses QAnon but said “if Owens believes in QAnon, that doesn’t disqualify him, in my opinion."
The Owens campaign has said he doesn't believe in the Qanon's conspiracy theory. But when asked about child sex trafficking during a radio interview last week, the candidate mentioned QAnon and said some aspects of it may be worth considering. He did not provide more specifics.
“One of the things we need to recognize with the left is if they ever say the word conspiracy, let’s look into it much deeper because there’s something they’re trying to keep us away from,” he said.
McAdams in response to Owens' latest interview called on him to formally disown the theory that’s been labeled a domestic terror threat by the FBI.
“This is serious. It is wrong for a candidate for Congress to endorse or flirt with these dangerous theories,” he told reporters Wednesday.
The Owens campaign argued he has condemned Qanon, citing a debate appearance when he called the group's theories “silly.”
Vice President Mike Pence and other Republican leaders have dismissed Qanon, but the conspiracy theory has penetrated the mainstream GOP political landscape.
Trump himself refused to condemn it during his town hall appearance on TV earlier this month.