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2010 tough year for Utah politicians

Published: Monday, Jan. 3 2011 1:07 a.m. MST

Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert gives a speech after the results of the gubernatorial race at the GOP election party at the Hilton Hotel in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — What would normally be a quiet off year in Utah politics turned surprisingly tough for some of the state's elected leaders, even ending some careers.

And Utah was no different than much of the rest of the country, where the emergence of the tea party movement shook up the establishment and set a new conservative course.

Even in the GOP-dominated state, debate about immigration and other controversial issues including the role of the federal government have taken a decidedly sharp turn to the right.

Most telling of the change may be the new faces representing Utah. Mike Lee is replacing Bob Bennett in the Senate after 18 years and will be the nation's youngest senator. Utah House Speaker-elect Becky Lockhart is the first woman to hold the powerful position.

But some familiar names are staying put. Utah's only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, defied the anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat sentiment of voters to win a sixth term.

And Gov. Gary Herbert, who took over as governor in August 2009 after former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China, won two more years in office despite a tough challenge.

Huntsman continues to be seen as a future presidential candidate, while Mitt Romney, the leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, is expected to run again in 2012.

Here's a list of the top 10 political stories for 2010:

1. Sen. Bob Bennett loses re-election bid. Bennett failed to win his party's nomination for a fourth term at May's state GOP convention, one of the first elected officials ousted nationwide by the anti-incumbent fervor stoked by the tea party movement. Even backing from one of the more popular politicians in Utah ever, Mitt Romney, couldn't stop delegates from cheering Bennett's defeat.

2. Senate and House majority leaders resign. Just before the 2010 Legislature began, then-Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, a Republican from Syracuse, quit after being pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence. In the last hours of the session, former House Majority Leader Kevin Garn tearfully acknowledged a years-old, nude hot-tubbing incident involving a teenaged girl. Garn also left the Legislature.

3. Gov. Gary Herbert beats confrontational challenger. Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon claimed Herbert's campaign contributions may have influenced the award of state contracts and compared him to disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But the negative campaigning proved to have backfired when Herbert took 28 of Utah's 29 counties, including Salt Lake, in the special election for remaining two years of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s term.

4. First-time candidate Mike Lee elected senator. Lee, son of the late Rex Lee, a former U.S. solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan and Brigham Young University president, succeeds in his first bid for political office. He had finished second to veteran campaigner Tim Bridgewater at the GOP convention, but his focus on following the U.S. Constitution helped him win the party's June 22 primary and beat Democrat Sam Granato in November.

5. Rep. Jim Matheson re-elected to sixth term. Disgruntled progressive Democrats forced Matheson into his first-ever primary but he spent big and easily won his party's nomination. Republican Morgan Philpot put up a fight in the general election without any significant help from the national GOP, but Matheson managed a narrow victory.

6. Utah's first woman House speaker chosen. House Republicans picked Provo Rep. Becky Lockhart in a secret ballot to serve as speaker rather than give House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, a second term in the top spot. Lockhart has already shaken up committee assignments and is expected to help drive a more conservative agenda next session.

7. Utah finally gets a fourth seat in Congress. Thanks to the 2010 Census reapportionment announced in December, the long-awaited fourth seat is a reality. The state had unsuccessfully gone to court a decade earlier, claiming the additional representation should have come then based on uncounted overseas missionaries.

8. Stands on immigration and other issues taking sharp right turn. With encouragement from the tea party movement, conservatives in Utah are pushing for tougher enforcement against illegal immigrants. Other issues getting more attention include adherence to a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

9. Mitt Romney widely seen as a leading GOP presidential candidate in 2012. Romney hasn't made his second bid for the White House official, but the former Utah Olympic leader is ahead of President Barack Obama in some polls.

10. PAC formed to encourage former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to run for president. The political action committee known as R-PAC has yet to report raising money, but supporters hope to use it to draft the now-U.S. ambassador into the race, likely in 2016.

e-mail: lisa@desnews.com

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