After testing the waters since the beginning of the year, Jason Chaffetz (R), a former chief of staff to Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R), announced Monday that he’ll be joining the growing field of Republican challengers hoping to take on Utah’s 3rd district Rep. Chris Cannon in a GOP primary. [IMGCAP(1)]
Chaffetz said in an interview Monday that he made his decision because Beehive State voters, who voted for President Bush over Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by an almost 3-1 margin in 2004, “are very frustrated that the Republicans at the national level have failed us, and that’s why they were thrown out of office in 2006. And it’s not because of the war in Iraq, but because of immigration, energy and I think keeping the budget in order.”
Chaffetz, who is 40 years old and also is known in the state as a former place kicker for the Brigham Young University football team, is described by some Utah political insiders as one of the up-and-comers in the state’s Republican party. Others are former Juab County prosecutor David Leavitt, the brother of former Gov. and current Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, and John Jacob, the 2006 GOP candidate who lost to Cannon in the primary by fewer than 7,000 votes.
But while Utah is indeed a lush and supportive environment for raising a Republican crop — one state GOPer said there are a few counties within the state that are proud to call themselves “the reddest of the red counties in the reddest of red states” — the opportunities for national office in Utah are few and far between.
“Citizens in Utah really like the idea of consistency,” the Utah Republican operative said last week. “Something that plays really well to people out here … is the idea of clout and experience and influence in D.C. and that really resonates with people.”
Hence Utah’s Senate slate is made up of six-term Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) and three-term Sen. Bob Bennett (R), neither of whom faced a primary opponent in their last election. In addition, three-term Rep. Bob Bishop (R), who represents the state’s 1st district, also went without a primary opponent in 2006.
But Dan Jones, who runs a Salt Lake City-based polling firm, said last week that some of those younger Beehive State politicos “are starting to get more courage now. There is a lot of young ones coming along that are willing to take on the establishment.”
And with Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson proving in 2006 that he can win handily in his Salt Lake City-based 2nd district — he walked away with 59 percent of the vote over state Rep. LaVar Christensen after a few closer calls — it appears that the place to cut your teeth if you are a rising Republican in Utah is Cannon’s 3rd district.
Jones said that with the Republican field that is shaping up to run against Cannon in 2008, it appears the six-term Congressman once again will not receive the 60 percent of votes necessary from state Republican delegates at the convention next spring that would allow him to avoid a June primary.
Cannon’s spokesperson Fred Piccolo said Monday that his boss has established his credentials among Utah Republicans and is confident he can win again facing a slew of candidates who are working to make their name in the state.
But Piccolo acknowledged that his boss’s situation would have been much improved if the Senate had not recently derailed an effort to gain an additional House district in Utah by tying it to a voting seat in the House for the District of Columbia. The unique bill sought to balance what was expected to be an additional Democratic seat in the House with a safely Republican seat. It was strongly backed by D.C. voting rights advocates and those in the Beehive State who are still bitter that the state fell short of receiving an additional House district by just 857 residents after the 2000 Census.
Piccolo said that with the additional seat, “it would actually have been a little easier from our perspective. [The districting map that was created for the bill] would have condensed the district a little bit and kept [Cannon’s] hometown folks and those that know him best in the district and it would remove the area where historically his challengers have come from.”
The new fourth seat “would have been an outlet to many of those ambitions” of up-and-coming state Republicans who will now have to wait until 2012 when Utah is all but certain to gain an extra House seat after the 2010 Census.
Of the likelihood of another primary for his boss, Piccolo said, “It is something that as a party you don’t want the national party, number one, wasting money on a district that is reliably Republican. And you don’t want to create any type of animosity within the party. In [a reliably Republican state like Utah] you would figure the Republican Party would be as unified as anywhere. You really don’t want to throw anything into the mix that would damage that and cause the party to have to divert from races that would be genuinely competitive against Democrats elsewhere in the country.”
But in Cannon’s primary battles, Utah Democrats see opportunity. While the prevailing Democratic strategy in Utah in recent cycles has been to protect Matheson’s seat at all costs, the Democrats’ strong showing in 2006 seems to have put those concerns to rest, at least for the time being.
“In the climate that we’re in right now we’re going have to put up a very good candidate to take Matheson’s seat in 2008 and I don’t see that really happening,” the Utah Republican operative said. “There’s just not money to go around.”
Meanwhile changing Democratic fortunes in other Mountain states like Colorado and Montana have Utah Democrats looking for an opportunity to go on the offense.
“I don’t think we’ve found the right candidate yet to take on Chris Cannon, but he is probably the least liked member of the Utah delegation among both Republican and Democrats,” said Todd Taylor, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party.
Taylor pointed to the six-year term of former Rep. Bill Orton (D) who held the seat for three terms in the 1990s as an indication that Democrats can win in the 3rd.
“Part of the reason [Orton] was initially elected was a very bitter Republican primary where voters said ‘a pox on both your houses, we have a perfectly acceptable alternative on the Democratic side.’ So we did hold that seat for six years under that scenario and I can foresee that happening again.”
Tayor added that the Democrats aren’t without some rising stars of their own in Utah. One name that Taylor and Jones both agree could one day replace Matheson if he ever sought statewide office — perhaps in 2012 if Hatch, who will be in his mid-70’s by then, chooses to retire — is Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon.
“Half of the population of the state of Utah lives in Salt Lake County where Peter Corroon has done an incredible job as the county mayor and has gotten high marks,” Taylor said.
Jones agreed that Corroon “has really blossomed in the last couple of years. But he has never run outside of Salt Lake County and really isn’t known in the south.”