Wednesday, June 25, 2008

GOP Primary Upset

Yesterday's primary election included only two races on which I could vote: state legislative district representative and state treasurer.

My four-term state representative was on the ropes. This was clear from the county convention last spring, where he lost to his challenger by one vote. As the spring campaign came on, it was clear that the 31-year-old challenger was doing a heck of a lot more legwork than was the 70-year-old incumbent. Usually, it is difficult to unseat an incumbent — even with lots of legwork — unless the incumbent has upset a lot of voters in his party. Past challenges have been relatively easy for my rep to win. But this time it was different.

My rep has a strong track record of holding the line on spending and of opposing tax increases. But his public reputation has increasingly been built upon his hard-line stance on illegal immigration. He has been convinced that his constituents hate illegal immigration and want the state to do everything possible to curtail it. I wrote about a differing conservative view of the immigration issue in a two-part post (part 1 and part 2) last month. I suspect that many of my district's voters aren't nearly as testy about immigration as my rep has assumed. It's just that a few have been very vocal about it.

Over the past several years my rep has increasingly come across as harsh rather than feisty. His public image (often due to press portrayal) has been that of a callous old politician.

Just how threatened my rep felt became clear in the last few days before the election. While we got no phone calls from the challenger, we were inundated with phone calls from the incumbent. Most of these were recorded calls. Many of them came from various advocacy groups or people associated with the legislature. Some were live calls from volunteers manning phone banks. One live call was from the incumbent himself. Just in the past week, I think we counted more than two dozen phone calls encouraging us to vote for the incumbent. We let all of these calls go to the answering machine.

I have personally known my rep for many years. And frankly, he's a bit of a nutcake. A couple of his votes this past session really chapped my hide. I did not like his brush-off explanation of his support of a bill that is the precursor to formal socialization of the entire medical industry in Utah. But, should I vote for the devil I know or for the unproven challenger with whom I disagree on education issues? It was a quandary, but as I went to the polls yesterday, I sensed that it somehow wouldn't matter much.

It was no surprise when I picked up the morning paper to see that the challenger had won the race. But I was surprised that the margin was 61-39 percent. While this sounds huge, it is important to realize that only 1,880 people voted in this race.

Anybody that follows politics in Utah already knows that the state treasurer race was an upset, with the Governor's stooge Richard Ellis beating out the legislature's stooge Mark Walker by a 60-40 margin (see SL-Trib article). Ellis proved to be a good closer with his accusation that Walker tried to bribe him to drop out of the race. That was a hard political calculation. It was difficult to know up front whether it would help or hurt Ellis. But with him trailing in the polls, it apparently seemed like it was worth the gamble, and it worked out great for him.

Upon hearing both Walker and Ellis on the radio in recent days, it seemed to me that both candidates were sensing the changing ground swell as the race came down to this single issue. Frankly, Ellis came across as credible on the issue while Walker, an investment banker, came across sounding like a lawyer.

I live in the 1st Congressional District, but the biggest news in Utah this morning is that in the 3rd Congressional District, challenger Jason Chaffetz beat out six-term incumbent Chris Cannon 60-40 percent (see KSL article). It seems that Chaffetz and Cannon are both far more surprised by this outcome than are the district's voters. Cannon whines that total voter turnout was too small for him to win. But with that large of a margin, it is doubtful that any get-out-the-vote effort by his campaign could have resulted in a Cannon win.

Like my rep, Cannon has come across (thanks to media portrayal and Cannon's own missteps) as increasingly callous and clueless. His negative public image overcame the fact that he has a very good track record on voting against spending increases and voting for tax cuts.

I was completely wrong on the Cannon race. I had predicted that, like past races where Cannon faced a serious challenger, Cannon would ultimately come out on top because not that many voters were mad at him.

Since this is Utah, the winners of the three races listed above will (unless something cataclysmic occurs) beat their Democratic opponents in November. While they still have to campaign, they can be considered for all intents and purposes to have won their respective offices.

Does this mean that voters have finally gotten mad enough that they want to kick incumbents out of office? LaVarr Webb of Utah Policy Daily says no (see Wednesday Buzz here). Webb writes:

"At first glance, I would say primary results are due more to local race factors than any overriding trends and patterns. Before anyone extrapolates primary results into the general election I would point out that this was a small number of races with a tiny turnout. Hard work and the basics of campaigning are still important factors."

This strikes me as about right. The common wisdom that all politics is local applies here. And it certainly appears that hard campaigning work really does pay off.

I will be watching to see how my new state legislative rep performs. If he messes up, he will be easy to unseat in two years. Otherwise, I'm not sure that having him there will be substantially different than having the former incumbent there.

As far as state treasurer goes, let's face that fact that most Utahns won't even remember the guy's name unless he does something bad that makes the news in a big way. Only the people in the executive and legislative branches that have reason to interact with his office will likely pay any attention at all to what he does in his job. When he comes up for re-election in four years, most Utahns will have totally forgotten the episode of the past few weeks. As long as he doesn't mess up, he can likely keep this job as long as he wants.

Many eyes will be watching Chaffetz as he goes to Washington. But quite honestly, little is expected of a first term congressional rep in the minority party. So it shouldn't be difficult for him to meet expectations.

Elections have consequences. But it is never clear up front what all of those consequences are. Only time will tell.

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