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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Why are so many people running for office in Utah?

Published: Sunday, Jan. 15 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Sen. Mike Lee successfully utilized the delegate process in his campaign.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Utah has a bumper crop of candidates for Congress and the governorship, especially on the Republican side. That raises some interesting questions.

Why are so many people running?

Pignanelli: "Why would any sane person want to belong to a club that 90 percent of Americans hate?" — A high-profile Utahn who really wishes to remain anonymous. As a candidate for public office six times in the last 25 years, I can state without equivocation that one must suffer from some mental instability to pursue such endeavors. You forsake all to raise money several times in excess of any salary; all for the privilege of having people hate you. (Yes there is a wonderful feeling of satisfaction, but the mortgage company would never accept that as payment.)

For decades, a bid for Congress was always viewed as an expensive adventure. However, several candidates were successful, without great cost, in initial phases of the campaign — by utilizing Utah's delegate/convention system. Through his popularity with GOP activists, Rob Bishop launched his bid on a teacher's salary. Recently, Jason Chaffetz and Mike Lee knocked off incumbents with large investments of time but little money — using the delegate process. Further, because government activity is so accessible through the Internet, many feel empowered with knowledge that once was difficult to obtain. This gives hope to newbie politicos with big dreams.

Webb: Utah has a lot of ambitious young Republicans. With the GOP nomination wide open in the 2nd and 4th congressional districts, and lots of pent-up demand, political hopefuls are sprouting like weeds. As of this writing, seven Republicans are running in the 2nd District and four in the 4th. Four solid GOP contenders are running for Salt Lake County mayor, along with two strong Democratic candidates. Two legitimate GOP candidates are challenging Sen. Orrin Hatch, and at least three will likely challenge Gov. Gary Herbert.

Social media and e-mail provide cheap ways to communicate and organize. The initial target audience is limited to delegates and caucus attendees. So the barriers to entry are lower today than in the past.

In the olden days (before Frank & LaVarr became grumpy old men), powerful incumbent Utah politicians seldom faced serious intra-party challenges. The parties protected incumbents and discouraged challengers. Ambitious youngsters were told to wait their turn. Today, incumbents are fair game and are shown little respect. What changed?

Pignanelli: American politics is undergoing a historic change. An example is the rise of libertarian Republicans, as evidenced by the continued success of Ron Paul. Also, as the party most engaged in changing the status quo, this dynamic is playing out with establishment Republicans fighting with up-and-comers. Thus, the respect that Utahns once had for veteran officeholders is diminishing, as is happening in other states and with Democrats. Even Jim Matheson — heir to a strong Utah legacy — fended off an interparty challenge in 2010. Furthermore, the Internet provides a trove of information about elected officials — which is good for public civic involvement but a danger for officeholders.

Webb: In the past, competent incumbents, with their ability to raise great amounts of money and communicate with constituents on the government's dime, were often invincible. But anger over the bad economy and ballooning federal deficits have dramatically reduced the appeal of incumbency. Incumbents today are often viewed as the problem, rather than as part of the solution.

Meanwhile, the "establishment" — the handful of prominent business, news media and civic leaders who could anoint candidates and make things happen — has lost clout. Power today, thanks in part to the Internet and the communications revolution, is greatly dispersed. No cadre of powerful people can, for example, protect incumbents and control the Legislature.

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