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There is growing evidence that Utah will return in the next two campaign cycles as a site of Senate campaign action, as it was in 2010 and 2012.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch’s expected retirement in four years will create the Beehive State’s first open-seat Senate race since 1992 — that much is a certainty. But in the more immediate future, some Utah Republicans perturbed with Sen. Mike Lee’s role in the government shutdown are considering a primary challenge to the first-term incumbent in 2016.
The state legislature passed a law that allows a candidate to earn a place on the ballot by collecting signatures — a detour around the existing caucus-convention process. A known and well-funded opponent could land on the primary ballot without risking being shut out at the convention.
Lee’s camp pushed back on the argument that petitioning on to the ballot would be beneficial to challengers, saying that the old system actually helped unknown outsiders — including Lee in 2010. If anything, a Lee source argued, the Republican senator now has high name identification in the state and the new ballot system only empowers him. Plus, fiscally conservative outside groups would sprint to help one of their favorite senators at the first sign of trouble. Indeed, the Tea Party Express endorsed Lee for re-election in December.
A primary isn’t Lee’s only potential concern. There is little doubt that Utah is one of the most conservative states in the country, but even Republicans shudder at the idea of Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson, who is retiring from his seat at the end of the year, running statewide. His best political asset is his undisputed brand, developed in part from his father’s time as governor.
“He is the most popular politician in the state, bar none,” outgoing state Democratic Chairman Jim Dabakis said. “He resonates with people in Utah. What we’re waiting for is for Jim to decide whether he’s going to run for governor or for Senate against Mike Lee.”
Utah GOP operatives were hesitant to name possible Lee challengers. But in a broader conversation about which Republicans could be viable in a Senate race, they named former state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, Mitt Romney’s son Josh Romney, state Attorney General Sean Reyes, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, state Sen. Aaron Osmond (a member of the show business family), state Speaker Becky Lockhart, and Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart.
Chaffetz considered challenging Hatch in 2012. Two years later, Republicans only cautiously suggest his name as a Senate contender. He is on the fast track to House leadership, and many of his allies wonder if that path is more desirable for the 47-year-old congressman from a safe district.