Cannon Likely to Face Another Tough Primary

Posted May 9, 2008 at 11:37am

Utah Republican Rep. Chris Cannon appears headed toward another primary after the state GOP convention meets on Saturday to select its party’s nominees.

Cannon must obtain 60 percent of GOP delegates at their meeting at Utah Valley State College in order to avoid an intraparty contest, which seems unlikely.

Cannon’s leading GOP challengers are Jason Chaffetz, the former chief of staff to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R), and former county prosecutor David Leavitt, who is the brother of former Gov. Mike Leavitt (R).

As Cannon’s foes have gone about courting delegates, both men have been trying to draw on the anti-incumbent sentiment that almost sunk Cannon in the previous cycle.

“I think the biggest category of voters out there has been what I call ABCs. Anybody but Cannon,” Chaffetz said Friday. “That’s who both Leavitt and I have been trying to court, people who really do want to see a change in Washington, D.C., and they are trying to sort out which change is better. I’m going to make my case that it’s me and I’m sure Leavitt is doing the same.”

In 2006, Cannon actually came in second on the final convention ballot but went on to beat anti-immigration candidate John Jacob by 12 points that summer.

In that primary the Congressman’s more moderate views on immigration, particularly his support of President Bush’s plans for a guest-worker program and giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, became the hot-button issue. Bush and first lady Laura Bush campaigned heavily for Cannon leading up to his June primary.

This time around, Cannon’s views on immigration haven’t appeared to be as much of a liability, but his competition is perhaps stronger.

Leavitt has proved to be a strong fundraiser, bringing in $386,000 to Cannon’s $523,000 so far this cycle. He also has a very recognizable family name.

Chaffetz, who also is known in the state as a former placekicker 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.

In perhaps an indication of how endangered he is feeling leading up to the convention, Cannon released a letter last week from Bush stating that he is again endorsing the Congressman.

“My guess is that the numbers are close enough that he needed [the endorsement] now rather than in the primary,” one Utah Republican source said this week.

But, the source added, as long as Cannon can get make it out of the convention, which is dominated by the more conservative party faithful, and into the primary, “he has a pretty good chance of getting re-elected.”

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Leavitt told a group of state delegates at a meeting this week that the letter from Bush “pretty much guarantees Chris’ spot in the primary.”

Leavitt went on to say that his commanding fundraising lead over Chaffetz shows that he has the means and organization to prevail in the primary.

Several Republicans on Capitol Hill and in Utah said this week that they expect the primary will come down to Leavitt and Cannon. But Cannon’s camp is still hopeful the Congressman can avoid a primary altogether Saturday.

“With a sizable portion of the delegates being brand new this cycle, it is always difficult to predict,” Cannon spokesman Fred Piccolo said this week. “But Chris’ conservative record and his effectiveness for Utah are second-to-none, and we are confident delegates got that message.”