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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: A year has changed a lot of Utah's political landscape

Published: Sunday, Dec. 18 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Columnists Pignanelli and Webb examine how events, people and trends of the past 12 months have influenced Utah politics.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

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Pignanelli and Webb: "An ironclad rule of American politics: A week is a lifetime politically, and three months is an eternity." — Mark Shields (renowned political columnist). Time is an important commodity for politicians. What happens over a year's time can determine success or failure for a candidate, a cause or a political trend.

Time is also important for your columnists (a year could be the difference between a great and good wine for Frank, while it signals LaVarr to rotate his food storage). We examine how events, people and trends of the past 12 months — a millennium in political time — have influenced Utah politics, especially going into the big 2012 election year.

Stronger Tea, or a Return to Diet Coke? In early 2011, Utah tea party activists were breaking out the apple cider and (in a few cases) champagne in celebration of multiple 2010 successes — especially toppling Bob Bennett and electing Mike Lee to the U.S. Senate. Their momentum was viewed as unstoppable. But the tea party movement, while still strong, has not coalesced into an organized alliance with clear leadership, objectives and work plan. Survey research shows that tea party support has declined among average citizens, both nationally and in Utah. The movement has so far been unable to secure formidable challengers to Sen. Orrin Hatch and Gov. Gary Herbert. The year ahead will determine whether the tea party was a one-cycle phenomenon, or whether it lurks beneath the surface, in the social media mists, and will emerge as a powerful force in coming elections.

Dead Man Walking. That's how many political analysts described Sen. Hatch after the 2010 elections. What a difference a year makes. The Hatch re-election effort may be the earliest-starting, biggest, most expensive, and certainly the most grassroots-intensive campaign in Utah history. The big-name opponents, including congressmen Jason Chaffetz and Jim Matheson have taken a pass on the race, leaving young political wunderkind Dan Liljenquist to see if he can slay Hatch despite a late start, a fraction of Hatch's money, and not much support from the political establishment.

Roller Coaster Ride. The Lagoon amusement park attraction best describes Gov. Herbert's 2011 experience. He began the year riding high after a solid victory against a well-funded opponent in 2010. But by March, a chunk of the population (including the far left, far right, and many GOP delegates) were angry with Herbert for his handling of HB477, the government records legislation. By summertime, Herbert was gliding upward with announcements of business relocations to Utah and improved economic times. In the fall, conservative challengers Morgan Philpot and State Rep. Ken Sumsion announced they would run against him. Late in the year he raised more than $1 million at his fundraising gala, and received a big Christmas present when Jim Matheson declined to run against him. Herbert must be taking motion sickness pills.

Presidential Sweepstakes. The year began with Utah favorite adopted son Mitt Romney obviously running for president. But then the race became more interesting for Utahns with the addition of Jon Huntsman, our former popular governor. To top the year off, former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson decided to take his pet causes national by entering the presidential race. We're not sure which is most preposterous: Rocky's presidential bid or Murray Mayor Dan Snarr's handlebar moustache. We're surprised "Superdell" Schanze isn't yet in the race.

Civic Engagement. Among prominent causes highlighted during 2011 was Utah's dismal voting participation numbers and what should be done about it. A coalition of community leaders and citizens (including LaVarr) began looking at ways to boost citizen involvement in the political system, including reforms to the primary election nomination process.

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