A Look at Utah

Posted August 8, 2003 at 5:48pm

The 2004 elections could foretell Democrats’ long-term viability in heavily Republican Utah: They may snatch back the governorship long held by the GOP but could lose their final major foothold in the state’s politics, the 2nd Congressional district.

The state’s other two House seats seem to be safely Republican, as does the Senate seat occupied by incumbent Bob Bennett, also up for re-election next year. Democrats will field challengers in those races, but attention will focus on the gubernatorial and 2nd district tilts, where the Republican machine will face off against Scott and Jim Matheson, respectively, sons of the state’s last Democratic governor.

[IMGCAP(1)] In the 2nd district, two-term Rep. Jim Matheson will seek re-election following a 2,015-vote win last fall. His victory margin in 2000 was far wider, but that was before the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature turned his largely urban, 450-square-mile district into a 50,000-square-mile rural tract.

Matheson’s 2002 opponent, former state Rep. John Swallow, is back, having raised nearly $125,000 this cycle (to Matheson’s $317,000). He’s confident that he will win this time — especially with President Bush leading the ballot, which could help GOP candidates statewide.

“I surprised many people by coming as close as I did,” Swallow said. “I held an incumbent to 49 percent of the vote with [low] name identification and in an off-year election.”

Swallow also thinks the Mathesons’ “Brother Act” will backfire. “I’m pretty confident that the voters of Utah don’t want to give all the power to Jim and Scott” Matheson, he said.

Before facing Jim Matheson, Swallow must fend off an intraparty challenge. Tim Bridgewater, a 2002 candidate, is expected to run again, and retired Air Force Col. Mike Dunn is already in the race.

“If I thought that [Swallow] was the one to beat Matheson, I’d support him as I did last time,” said Dunn, former aide to ex-Rep. Jim Hansen (R). “But he couldn’t beat him. I didn’t see how this time he could.”

Dunn has one slight problem: He lives in Utah’s 1st district, not the 2nd. However, he planned to move to that district before deciding to run for Congress, and his house has been for sale for more than a year, he said.

Swallow, meanwhile, has lived in the 2nd district for more than a decade. He called Dunn “a fine guy” and declined to make light of his residency — so don’t look for Swallow-sponsored billboards calling Dunn “Hillaryesque.”

One Utah Republican source finds Dunn a nonfactor, Swallow the frontrunner and Bridgewater the possible spoiler. Bridgewater actually garnered more votes at the 2002 state GOP convention than Swallow, but not the 60 percent needed to secure the nomination without a runoff primary, which Swallow won. The seat is “a very likely pickup, [but] it will be close,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Meg Holbrook, chairwoman of the Utah Democrats, agreed with half that argument. “Jim Matheson will win that district, but it’s always going to be close,” she said. “It was gerrymandered. … They redistrict here to annihilate the Democrats.”

Turnout will be key, said Kelly Patterson, chairman of Brigham Young University’s political science department. “Matheson won in 2002 when there really wasn’t a lot going on,” he said. A Bush-centric 2004 will be different, and Matheson has little margin for error, he said.

Matheson spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend dismissed GOP claims of vultures circling her boss’ political future. “It’s not really news that they say that we’re vulnerable,” she said. “We’re just busy doing our job.”

Neither of Utah’s other two Congressional races will be competitive, Patterson said.

First district freshman Rep. Rob Bishop (R) has no opposition yet. Holbrook said a Democrat will enter the race but declined to name names.

The 3rd district should be more interesting. Rep. Chris Cannon (R), brother of Utah GOP Chairman Joe Cannon, is favored to win a fifth term, but the Republican source expects he’ll encounter an intraparty challenge, common in Utah. “Chris doesn’t seem to do real well in convention,” the source said, “but then crushes [his opponent] in the primary.”

In the general election, Cannon may face Democratic state Sen. Ed Mayne, who Holbrook is confident would mount a strong challenge. Mayne, head of Utah’s AFL-CIO, “is not a pushover,” the GOP source acknowledged. But Patterson believes any challenger will be Cannon fodder: “He’s safe.”

By most accounts, Sen. Bennett is just as safe. Patterson called him “quite popular,” while the GOP source said Bennett could “win that seat over and over.” An intraparty challenge from the far right is possible, but unlikely.

“We’re organized and we’re raising money,” said Bennett spokeswoman Mary Jane Collipriest. “We’ll look forward to what the next few months bring.”

What they’ll bring is a candidacy from Democrat Paul Van Dam, state attorney general from 1989 to 1992, Holbrook said. Republicans aren’t worried. “Van Dam has been elected statewide, but has been out of the scene a while,” which will favor Bennett, the GOP source said.

Democrats, however, are bringing out the big guns for the governor’s race. Scott Matheson Jr. announced last month he would seek the seat his late father held from 1977 to 1985. His name recognition could boost him significantly. Currently dean of the University of Utah’s law school, Matheson has never held political office.

To Holbrook, winning the statehouse is key to breaking the GOP’s Utah stranglehold. “The governorship changes, and that changes the whole equation,” she said.

Matheson is the presumptive Democratic nominee, but things are up in the air for Republicans. Longtime Gov. Mike Leavitt will soon declare whether he will seek an unprecedented fourth term. “Most politicos are betting he’s going to run again,” Patterson said. “But nobody really knows what he’s going to announce.”

Though still popular, polls have shown voter unease with Leavitt trying to remain in office for 16 years — one reason Democrats may prefer him to a newcomer. “I personally would love to [have us] run against him,” Holbrook said.

If Leavitt does not run, expect a Republican free-for-all, and if he does, “it’s not going to be an easy fight,” the GOP source said. Challengers could include Hansen, Utah House Speaker Marty Stevens and former Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr., who has said he will not run if Leavitt does.

Chris Bleak, executive director of the Utah Republican Party, knows the importance of the governor’s race to Democrats. “I think that if the Democrats were to take the governorship, that would be a great thing for their party,” he said. “But I don’t foresee that happening.”

Holbrook disagreed. “People are getting sick of the Republican domination here,” she said, and noted Democratic statehouse wins in Western states such as Kansas and Wyoming as a sign that Matheson will be a strong candidate.

As for Utah up-and-comers, a Democratic source pegged state Sen. Patrice Arent — who upset then-Majority Leader Steve Poulton in a much-publicized 2002 race seen as helping Matheson defeat Swallow — as someone who could one day vie for governor, U.S. Senator or Congresswoman. Other rising stars include state Rep. Pat Jones and state Sens. Karen Hale and Paula Julander.

The Republican source, meanwhile, cited Rep. Steve Urquhart; Scott Parker, chief of staff for Rep. Bishop; attorney Chris Kyler; and Alan Dayton, deputy mayor of Salt Lake County.

One last issue is lurking out there: Rep. Tom Davis’ (R-Va.) idea to give the District of Columbia voting representation in the House. Under the proposal, still in the planning stages, Utah could also gain a House seat. Utah nearly won an extra seat following the 2000 Census, but North Carolina nabbed it instead, despite Utah’s legal action against the Census Bureau.

Under a tentative plan the Utah Legislature approved in 2001, the fourth district would have been made out of southern Salt Lake County (the county is currently divided into three pieces, one for each district), and it seems it would favor a Republican candidate. “I would push hard to re-look at how those seats are drawn,” the Republican source said. “I think the fourth seat plan was very much an afterthought.”

Holbrook dismissed Davis’ plan as a power play. “It’s another case of Republicans overreaching with blatant partisanship,” she said. “We’ll get another seat [after the next Census]. To do it now is too much. [Davis is] doing it to increase Republican seats, and it will make even fewer seats nationwide playable.”

Matheson spokeswoman Heyrend said her boss supports the idea of a fourth seat — he was a plaintiff on the recent lawsuit — but that the Davis plan is too preliminary to comment on. “There’s not a formal proposal,” she said. “It sounds pretty hypothetical at this point.”

Republicans see the move only as a good thing for Utah. “I do think we’ll get a fourth seat,” the GOP source said, noting that even if that district leaned Republican it would dilute GOP strength in the remaining three. “I don’t see how it’s a negative for anyone. It’s another vote we have in Congress, which can’t hurt.”

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.