Utah Republicans Almost Fire Cannon; Tough Primary Awaits Member

Posted May 12, 2008 at 10:34am

Utah Republican Rep. Chris Cannon will face Jason Chaffetz, the former chief of staff to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R), in a June primary after the two men emerged as the top vote-getters at the state GOP convention over the weekend.

Chaffetz had run to the right of Cannon, who in recent years had been hit for his more moderate views on immigration. Chaffetz said in the days leading up to the state GOP convention that there had been a growing an anti-incumbent sentiment in the 3rd district in recent cycles and that the issue was coming to a head this year.

For the second cycle in a row, Cannon actually finished behind his challenger in convention balloting, but this year, the six-term Congressman very nearly lost his seat at the convention Saturday.

According to party rules, a candidate can avoid a primary if he or she obtains 60 percent of the delegate vote at the convention. Last cycle Cannon earned a fairly comfortable 48 percent of the vote. But this year Cannon earned just 41 percent to Chaffetz’s 59 percent. Had Chaffetz obtained just 10 more delegate votes, he would have won the party nomination outright on Saturday.

Cannon was able to get to 41 percent Saturday by picking up the support of former county prosecutor David Leavitt, who is the brother of former Gov. Mike Leavitt (R).

David Leavitt, who many Utah GOP insiders expected to finish ahead of Chaffetz at the convention, was knocked out of the race after the second ballot Saturday. After he was bumped from the race, he agreed to support Cannon and brought over just enough delegates to the Congressman to keep Chaffetz from wrapping up the contest on the third ballot.

Despite Chaffetz’s showing Saturday, now that Cannon has made it out of the convention — which is dominated by more conservative party faithful — and into the primary, Chaffetz will still be seen as the underdog.

Last cycle, after his second-place finish in the convention, Cannon went on to a 12-point primary victory. This cycle he has dominated Chaffetz in fundraising. As of April 20, the Congressman had raised $548,000 to Chaffetz’ $93,000. Cannon also touted his endorsement by President Bush in the days leading up to the convention.

Cannon’s spokesman, Fred Piccolo, said after the convention that the Congressman had been expecting a close race heading into Saturday.

“Facing an uphill convention is nothing new for Chris,” Piccolo said in an e-mail. “Utah Republicans are rightfully angry with the direction of the party in Congress.”

But Piccolo said Cannon remains confident in the primary race.

“Chris is battle tested, both in Utah and nationally,” he said. “We expected a primary and will move into that phase of the campaign without a problem.”