SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jason Chaffetz has strolled to four easy re-election wins in his Republican-friendly Utah congressional district, but now he’s facing a surprising challenge from a Democratic political newcomer who raised nearly a half million dollars — by tapping into anger over Chaffetz’ recent comment suggesting people should spend their money on health insurance instead of iPhones.
Dr. Kathryn Allen has been transformed from a political unknown into a liberal hero for calling out Chaffetz on Twitter, giving her an early boost in name recognition ahead of the November 2018 election.
Bolstered by a Twitter shout-out from comedian Rosie O’Donnell and a mention on the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC, Allen’s Crowdpac page donations spiked from about $18,000 the day Chaffetz uttered the comment to $467,000 as of Friday morning. The donations come from around the country and most are under $200, Allen said.
Chaffetz’ was asked on March 7 by CNN how lower-income Americans would get access to health insurance when the Affordable Care Act is replaced.
“Americans have choices,” he responded. “Maybe rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love, and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care.”
The remarks triggered a firestorm of criticism on social media with people comparing how many iPhones they could buy if they didn’t have to pay medical bills in the tens of thousands of dollars. He later conceded on Fox News that his point about people being self-reliant didn’t come out as smoothly as it could have.
The comment infuriated Allen, a family physician who spent nearly three decades working at a clinic in one of Salt Lake City’s poorer suburbs.
“I found it absolutely tone deaf,” said Allen. “I have seen people have to decide whether to eat or go to the doctor.”
She had been planning to announce her candidacy in April, but said in an interview that Chaffetz provided her with a “golden moment” to do so earlier.
This week, Chaffetz said in a statement that he is “sympathetic to the tough choices people have to make in the face of rising health care prices” and insisted he’s working hard to fix what he called flaws in President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Spokeswomen for Chaffetz said he was not available for an interview and declined to answer questions about Allen.
Even if Allen manages to keep up the flow of campaign donations, her bid to unseat Chaffetz will be a longshot.
Half of the voters are registered Republicans in Chaffetz’ 3rd congressional district, which stretches from Salt Lake City’s southeastern suburbs to desert towns in southeastern Utah and includes heavily conservative Mormon areas.
Joseph Ney, an investment adviser in the district who considers himself a conservative, did not vote for Chaffetz in 2016 and had not heard of Allen but defended Chaffetz’ iPhone comments.
“People sometimes just need to choose how to allocate their assets. I don’t get to buy everything I want,” said Ney, who lives in Cottonwood Heights, an upper middle class Salt Lake City suburb.
Chaffetz defeated his last four Democratic opponents by at least 46 percentage points. But none of them raised as much as money as Allen or generated as much attention.
President Donald Trump’s election victory led Allen to consider running for office, and she decided to do so after attending a Chaffetz town hall in February. He was drowned out by boos and grilled by constituents livid with his refusal to investigate Trump’s alleged conflicts of interest and ties to Russia.
It’s the first run for public office for Allen, a lifelong Democrat who came from California to Utah in 1984 for a medical residency and stayed.
She admires European style social democratic governments, considers health care a right, wants public lands to remain under federal control and was known better in Utah before she announced her campaign for her singing in vocal groups — including the women’s choir “Darena” that performs Balkan music and appeared at Salt Lake City’s 2002 Winter Olympics.
Her supporters include Kimberly Clark, a Democrat from the rural coal town of Price, who interpreted Chaffetz’ remarks as implying the poor should live without smartphones.
“My cellphone is the only communication I have,” said Clark, who said she lives off disability payments and struggles to make her monthly payments for her house, car and insurance.
Chaffetz tried to turn the tables on Allen in a fundraising email this week to supporters, saying his next campaign will be different because Allen is backed by O’Donnell, an actress-comedian who has feuded with Trump and lambasted conservatives for years.
Chaffetz ended 2016 with $408,000 in cash, his most recent campaign finance report said. His office declined to say how much he has now. The next filing is due in mid-April.
To win, Allen must stake out positions that set her apart from Democrats like O’Donnell and Maddow, said Brigham Young University political science professor Jeremy Pope. The last Democrat in Congress for Utah, Jim Matheson, was a moderate who served from 2001-2015.
Allen knows some voters don’t like O’Donnell and Maddow but said a supportive tweet from O’Donnell to her 1 million followers was priceless in getting her name out to voters.
“I didn’t even know how to tweet two weeks ago,” said the 63-year-old Allen, who now has 20,000 followers.