Cannon: Foe Should Be Challenging Matheson

Posted June 16, 2008 at 6:06pm

With a week to go before Utah’s primary election, Rep. Chris Cannon (R) has been forced to walk a fine line in his bid to survive another tough challenge from a candidate within his own party.

Essentially, the six-term Congressman has been trying to paint his GOP opponent as a political “opportunist” without saying that he’s being picked on because he’s an easy target.

As expected, Cannon has been attacking Jason Chaffetz (R), the former chief of staff to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R), for running against him while living outside the 3rd district. But Cannon has also said that if Chaffetz really was concerned about bringing change to Washington, D.C. — rather than just prospecting for the easiest race to win — he would be running against his own Congressman, 2nd district Rep. Jim Matheson (D), rather than Cannon.

That kind of campaign rhetoric comes very close to admitting that the Cannon is indeed vulnerable, something a candidate, especially an incumbent, rarely likes to do.

But a few recent figures from the contest show just how precarious a position the Congressman is in.

Next week’s primary was brought about because no Republican candidate was able to secure 60 percent of the vote at the state’s GOP convention last month. But Chaffetz came incredibly close to doing so.

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.

Meanwhile, Cannon needed help to keep that from happening and picked up the support of a third candidate, former prosecutor David Leavitt, who is the brother of former Gov. Mike Leavitt (R), on the final ballot of the day.

The only publicly released indepndent poll since that convention had the two men neck-and-neck, with Cannon up by 2 points but well within the margin of error. That poll was taken in the days after the convention.

Last week, the candidates submitted their pre-primary reports to the Federal Election Commission, and Cannon showed just more than $9,000 in cash on hand as of June 6.

Chaffetz reported $65,000 in the bank.

But Cannon said Monday that his campaign is doing much better than those numbers would indicate.

“We’ve had lots of cash coming in,” said the Congressman, who has spent more than $138,000 on his re-election since late April. “We’re fine.”

He said he is happy with the amount of money that has come in since the FEC reporting period and added that he doesn’t plan on having to loan his campaign any money with a week to go before the primary. (In the previous cycle, Cannon loaned his campaign more than $130,000, which he has yet to pay off.)

Cannon also said his campaign has internal polling, which he was not prepared to release, that shows his lead to be larger than the mid-May poll indicated.

“Our polling is a little wider,” Cannon said. “And … it’s moving more in my direction.”

While Cannon has traditionally done better among primary voters than he has among the more conservative party faithful who dominate the state convention, he said part of the reason his internal polling is moving in his favor is the fact that voters are learning that Chaffetz is an “opportunist” from outside the district.

“I think as people realize the guy is not in the district they react to that. … I’m surprised at how much that moved him” in the internal campaign survey, Cannon said.

Some Utah Republican insiders wondered just how much those numbers were moving, seeing as how Cannon brought up his opponent’s residency issues during the state convention at it didn’t seem to hurt him then.

For his part, Chaffetz called the issue a distraction that is being raised by Cannon’s campaign as a way to avoid talking about “real issues.”

Chaffetz, who also is known in the state as a former place-kicker for the Brigham Young University football team, has run to the right of the 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 anti-incumbent sentiment in the 3rd district in recent cycles and that the issue was coming to a head this year. He continued to attack Cannon for his ties to Washington in debates held last week.

Cannon’s “supposed strength was his time on the natural resources committee. But gas is $4 a gallon so it’s hardly anything to tout. … [Cannon] doesn’t want to talk about the issues because on the issues he loses and he knows it,” Chaffetz said Monday.

Asked whether he had ever considered running in the 2nd district against Matheson, Chaffetz said, “as a chief of staff to Gov. John Huntsman, I got to see up close and personal who did what and how. And I got to see that Chris Cannon’s office was the most inept office in town. I really do believe that the Republicans have some internal house cleaning to do. I’ve argued for the past two years that until Republicans get their house in order we’re going to continue to suffer and that’s obviously resonating.”

Chaffetz also pointed out that if Cannon had been successful in his push to get the state a fourth House district (an effort that was tied to a voting rights bill for Washington, D.C., which stalled last year in Congress), then a new district map would have moved his hometown into the 3rd district. As it is, Chaffetz lives just a few thousand feet from the 3rd district’s border.

Meanwhile, Dan Jones, who runs a Salt Lake City-based polling firm that conducted the May poll on the race, said Monday that despite his initial assumptions, his surveys haven’t shown a major connection between Chaffetz’s residency issues and his polling numbers.

“I thought not living in the district would play a lot better than it has, but I’m finding people really don’t care. Many of them don’t even know the district they live in,” said Jones, who added that he will be polling the race again this week.

With Cannon polling better among Republicans, Jones said the more important factor may be how many independent voters, with whom Chaffetz campaign has done very well, will choose to register as Republican and vote in next week’s primary.

“Chaffetz reaches out to young people and others who haven’t voted before” while Cannon has more support among traditional Republican voters, Jones said.

“It’s been very hard-fought,” he said. “It’s a real real difficult one to figure out.”