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Around the U.S. in 50 Days: Utah

In Utah, besides the Presidential election, there are two statewide races: Governor and Senate. Given his popularity and the fact that Utah is staunchly conservative and decidedly red, there is little drama in the Governor’s race as incumbent Republican Guy Herbert should win easily. The only chance the Democrats have of winning is if Joseph Smith ran on their ticket. At the present time, there is not even an announced candidate although state senator Karen Morgan has been mentioned as the possible sacrificial lamb.

Regarding the Presidential vote, there is no doubt either that Utah’s six electoral votes will go to the eventual Republican nominee.

For the Senate, incumbent Republican Orrin Hatch faces re-election. However, his biggest challenge comes not from the Democratic Party but from his own party. Heeding the lesson of 2010 and the chain of events that ousted incumbent Republican Robert Bennett, Hatch needs to learn from his mistakes. In 2010, Bennett failed to accurately gauge the strength of the Tea Party movement within the state’s party. They dominated the state convention that decides who goes on the primary ballot. Hence, Hatch needs to highlight and tout his conservative credentials, especially in the fiscal area. He must do this to thwart another Tea Party challenge to his incumbency. Utah Tea Party activist David Kirkhan has been making noises, but has not officially declared his candidacy. It may just be posturing to gain influence at the convention, or he may be nudging Hatch more to the right. Still, the possibility of his entry into the race should not be underestimated.

And Hatch certainly faces headwinds in Utah. First, he must run the gauntlet of a state nominating convention followed by a primary. Second, surveys out of Utah indicate that the popularity of Hatch has taken a hit in his home state. Third, because his biggest potential opposition may be from the Tea Party and because they are above all else fiscally conservative, Hatch’s vote in favor of TARP may prove a little too toxic for Utah Republicans. Fourth, his support of certain judicial nominees since he sits on the Senate’s Judiciary Committee may be a topic of discussion. This is considered the third most conservative state in the Nation and many of his Senate votes over the years may not sit too well with some of the more conservative elements in the party. And finally, with incredibly low Congressional ratings, Hatch may be viewed as part of that problem.

Ironically, another name mentioned as a possible foil within the Party other than Kirkhan has been the still popular ex-Governor-turned-Presidential-aspirant, John Huntsman. However, the longer he hangs in the Presidential sweepstakes (and it does not appear he will drop out before Super Tuesday) the less opportunity he has to consolidate support amongst the Utah GOP. Regardless, some of his views and comments on the campaign trail could be construed as being to the left of Hatch. Another potential name is the highly popular 3rd District Representative Jason Chaffetz. Many polls indicate that he would seriously challenge Hatch for the Republican nomination and possibly defeat him in a primary.

Utah gains a seat in the House this time. After the 2000 census, the GOP dominated legislature created a map designed to make it difficult for Jim Matheson- the only Democrat in the Utah Congressional delegation- who represents the 2nd District. He said before the current maps were released that if the same was done this time, he would have to reconsider his political future. In effect, the new map drew him into the newly created 4th District and so altered the 2nd District that (1) Matheson HAS decided to run in the 4th District and (2) the 2nd District is, in fact, the de facto “new district.” This sets up the very real possibility that 2nd District- currently held by Matheson- will flip to Republican and that Matheson will most likely win the 4th District. Previously, Matheson’s 2nd District had a PVI rating of +15 Republican. The fact that Matheson, a Democrat, could win consistently in such a Republican district attests to Matheson’s popularity in Utah and explains why some drool at the prospect of a Matheson-Hatch match up for the Senate seat. But, the map makers did themselves a favor by allowing Matheson an out into the 4th District. It further sets into the motion the probability that the GOP will add a seat in the House. But most importantly, it took out the only real viable Democratic opposition to Hatch.

And this has had the effect of discouraging the Democratic Party and demoralizing it somewhat in Utah. Obviously, they are aware of the waning popularity of Hatch within his party coupled with a general anti-incumbent atmosphere with some Tea Party reluctance thrown in for good measure. The fact that Matheson has bowed out of that race into the 4th District race is a serious blow to their chances. Make no mistake, it would have been difficult for Matheson to unseat Hatch, but he was their best bet in Utah in 2012. Instead, they now have to look at the very real possibility that reapportionment has added a Republican seat to the House and that a Republican is all but assured retention of the Senate seat. The result is that the Democratic Party must now hope that a perfect storm of anti-incumbency fervor, Tea Party insurgency and emergence of a viable Democrat occurs in order for a best case scenario for them- a best case scenario that would not even guarantee them electoral gains in the House or Senate.

Assuming Chaffetz does not make a later than usual entry into the Senate race against Hatch (polls indicate he would actually unseat Hatch), he is safe for re-election in the 3rd District as is Republican Rob Bishop in the 1st District. Assuming Matheson wins in the 4th, that leaves only an open seat in the 2nd District. That would heavily favor a Republican, most likely Steven Sandstrom. Hence, Republicans pick up a House seat, retain the Governor’s seat and a Senate seat. Even if Chaffetz leaves his 3rd District seat open in a bid for the Senate, Kurt Bradburn is set to assume this seat and keep it in Republican hands.

Thus, our running count thus far is:
Obama 16 electoral votes to 19 for the GOP nominee;
A net gain of two House seats (WA and UT)
A net gain of two Governors (WA and MT)
No change in the Senate

Next stop: Oregon

Next: Oregon

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