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Cannon Firing Back at Likely GOP Challengers

Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) can see the writing on the wall.

Having successfully hit up business groups and trade associations for nearly $200,000 this year, the six-term lawmaker is heading back to his Provo-based district this August recess to ply local donors ahead of what’s expected to be a crowded field that will challenge him in the 2008 Republican primary.

Cannon’s campaign declined to provide specific benchmarks but said “sizable” district fundraising is expected during the recess. Combined with surplus cash, beefed-up constituent services and immigration — for now, at least — falling onto the back burner, Cannon is looking to build a base within the local party, some say for the very first time.

“He’s host[ing] the nighttime radio shows, a no-holds-barred type of atmosphere,” Cannon spokesman Fred Piccolo said. “He’s been in [office] so long, but people don’t know him.”

Buoyed by district distaste for Cannon’s apparent pro-immigration stance, water developer John Jacob came within 7,000 votes of winning the district’s GOP primary in 2006. Two years earlier, Matt Throckmorton took 42 percent of the Republican primary vote.

Utah County Republican Party Chairwoman Marian Monnahan said Jacob blindsided the incumbent last year, causing a nose dive Cannon only barely pulled out of. But with Republicans now in the minority, Monnahan and others warn: Don’t bet on it this time.

“He’s going to have to mount a serious campaign this time,” Monnahan said. “You’ve got a couple of strong people” considering a run.

Still six months out, Dan Jones, who runs a Salt Lake City-based polling firm, said Cannon already faces three credible GOP challengers: Jacob, David Leavitt and Jason Chaffetz.

Leavitt, brother of Health and Human Services Secretary and former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, told Roll Call on Monday that he plans to challenge Cannon next year. Leavitt, who has not begun fundraising but said he could pay his own way, suggested Cannon’s distaste for Democratic meddling into White House personnel issues shows he’s out of touch with the district.

“We have a very polarized society and what we need is a Republican who can adhere to Republican values and still reach across party lines,” Leavitt said.

Jones put Leavitt just to the left of Chaffetz, who ran Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s campaign and went on to become his chief of staff. Chaffetz, who now runs his own marketing firm, told Roll Call on Monday that he has formed an exploratory committee and is “seriously considering a run. … So far, the water feels pretty warm,” Chaffetz said.

Like Leavitt, Chaffetz said he is looking to court the state’s Republican delegates on bread-and-butter conservative issues such as fiscal discipline. To avoid a primary challenge, Cannon must garner 60 percent of GOP delegates’ support, which pollster Jones said is difficult to imagine at this point.

Chaffetz, who also said he could self-fund, declined to provide his fundraising totals to date, other than to confirm he has “raised tens of thousands of dollars,” primarily from individuals. Other than his voting record, Chaffetz said Cannon is sloppy with with the facts.

“His record … is weak. He’s certainly taken serious blows over the immigration issue, but as people look at fiscal discipline and personal accountability,” Chaffetz said. “He’s out there telling people [that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] would drop the cost of a gallon of gas to $1.50, when in reality it may make a difference of 2 to 2.5 cents.”

Also working against Cannon, Jones said, is a lack of open seats in the state. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), was re-elected by a wide margin last year, and Sen. Bob Bennett (R) carried nearly 70 percent of the electorate in 2004.

“There just aren’t many positions for Republicans to be elected to office,” he said.

Jacob also confirmed that he likely will enter the fray next year, but he plans to campaign on fiscal issues as well as immigration, an issue he said “will not go away.”

“Chris last year ran on the idea that he had a lot of power, which evaporated in the last election,” Jacob said. “Again, Chris has not taken the time to listen to the people in his district.”

Still, Jones noted: “[Cannon] always has a high negative. But he ends up surviving.”

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