Cannon’s Political Fate Decided Today

Posted June 23, 2008 at 5:49pm

Republicans in Utah’s 3rd district will head to the polls today to decide whether they want to fire six-term Rep. Chris Cannon, something they have nearly done several times now in the suburban Salt Lake City and Provo-based district.

The latest polling, taken last week, shows the primary race to be a statistical dead heat between Cannon and Jason Chaffetz, the former chief of staff to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R).

The Utah polling firm Dan Jones & Associates released a survey over the weekend of 312 registered voters that gave Cannon a 4-point lead. But with a 5.5-point margin of error — and 15 percent of voters saying they were undecided — it is anyone’s game at this point.

What is certain is that Cannon, a Member who is known to prefer the legislative side of his job to the idea of campaigning and fundraising, is once again fighting for his Congressional life.

In recent cycles, it has become almost expected that Cannon won’t obtain 60 percent of the delegate vote at the state convention to avoid a primary (and winning the Republican nomination is tantamount to victory in the conservative 3rd district).

Some political observers thought Cannon had received a wake-up call in 2006 when he actually placed second at the convention before going on to a 12-point primary victory. But this year, Cannon was very nearly ousted at the May convention, where he 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 the support of a third candidate on the final ballot of the day just to force a primary.

Cannon has traditionally done better among primary voters than he has among the more conservative party faithful who dominate the state convention, but Chaffetz has proved to be a potent grass-roots candidate who surprised many Utah Republicans with his strong showing at the convention.

Despite a mostly conservative voting record, Cannon has been a target during conventions and primaries based on his more moderate stances on social issues, most notably immigration reform.

Chaffetz has positioned himself to the right of Cannon and has certainly tapped into the issues that have made Cannon a target in the past. He has received late financial contributions from groups such as Team America, a political action committee dedicated to securing the nation’s borders that was founded by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.).

But Chaffetz is also hoping to get a boost from the anti-Washington, D.C., sentiment that has become even more pronounced since 2006.

After Republican Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett recently cut radio ads touting Cannon, Chaffetz said last week that those ads would only help him with a disgruntled Republican voting base.

“That is so helpful to my campaign,” Chaffetz said. “I’m arguing against the status quo and nobody epitomizes the status quo more than Hatch and Bennett around here.”

Some Republicans said Monday that Chaffetz, who also is known in the state as a former place-kicker for the Brigham Young University football team, could get a boost today by bringing out younger voters or even anti-Washington independents who could register to vote on site.

But Cannon has put up a tough fight in the six-week sprint from the convention to the primary.

He has been raising and spending large sums of money with more than $80,000 in donations coming in just the past week, according to late Federal Election Commission reports.

He has also been hitting Chaffetz hard for running against him while living outside the 3rd district. Cannon has said that if Chaffetz really was concerned about bringing change to Washington — rather than just prospecting for the easiest race to win — he would be running against his own Congressman, 2nd district Rep. Jim Matheson (D).

Cannon has employed mailers and robo-calls on that topic in the last week and continually brought the issue up during various debates.

“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 an internal campaign survey, Cannon said last week.

Whether it has moved him enough remains to be seen. And if Cannon survives today’s primary, it also remains to be seen whether it’s possible for him to make next cycle’s race for his party nomination any closer than it has been this time.