Low voter turnout: Incumbents fare poorly in key races

Published: Wednesday, June 25 2008 12:30 a.m. MDT

Congressman Chris Cannon of the 3rd Congressional District studies election results at a computer.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

For only the second time in 30 years, Utah Republicans have dumped an incumbent Republican congressman — Rep. Chris Cannon was soundly defeated in Tuesday's primary election by newcomer Jason Chaffetz in the 3rd Congressional District.

It wasn't even close — a real political shellacking — with Chaffetz winning by almost 20 percentage points.

It was not a good night for legislative incumbents, either — two Utah House Republicans fell to intraparty challengers.

Cannon was stunned by the defeat.

"This is a revolution. A revolution by the people sitting at home" and not voting. "A revolution by those who did vote," said Cannon, who added he was caught up in a nationwide feeling of anger and disgruntlement — anger that helped sweep him from office. "It was a 'pox on all your houses' attitude out there" among voters.

Having barely fallen short of defeating Cannon in the May state Republican Convention, Chaffetz predicted that he would "finish the job" in the primary election. And he did — incomplete results showing he beat Cannon in Salt Lake County nearly two to one, carrying the Utah County part of the district and even doing well in rural Utah.

In the only statewide primary — the Republican nomination for the state treasurer — chief deputy treasurer Richard Ellis bashed state Rep. Mark Walker, R-Sandy, in one of the worst voter-participation primary elections in the state's history, expected to be in the single digits percentagewise.

"The low voter turnout shows just how frustrated in general Republicans are," said Chaffetz. Republicans "have lost their way — we have to get back to our core Republican values, our core principles. When we were there, when we held those, that's when we were successful as a party.

"And I'll fight every day to bring us back to those principles," said Chaffetz — who now must be the odds-on favorite to win the seat and go to Washington, D.C., a Republican holding the seat in the 1980s and since 1996.

Cannon said last week that Chaffetz was misrepresenting his congressional record "every time he speaks." But Cannon also admitted that he is not the best of public speakers and sometimes has trouble expressing his views. Ellis beat Walker by 59 percent to 41 percent. Walker certainly had his campaign problems, but Walker's defeat was also a slap in the face to leading current Republican officeholders who backed Walker with endorsements and campaign cash. Walker was supported by GOP Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Republican leaders in the Utah House and Senate, who claimed Ellis wasn't conservative enough to invest Utah's billions of dollars each year.

Chaffetz will now face Democrat Bennion Spencer in the November election. And Ellis will face Democratic treasurer candidate Dick Clark.

In northern Utah, Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, was booted out, losing to fellow Republican Ryan Wilcox. Donnelson has been the legislative pointman on illegal immigration, running several unsuccessful bills trying to take away in-state college tuition for the children of illegal aliens. A minor flap may have also hurt Donnelson, when his local county Republican Party chairman tried to organize a Donnelson-Wilcox debate, Donnelson declined to attend.

Rep. Paul Neuenschwander, R-Bountiful, lost a close race to fellow Republican Becky Edwards in House District 20.

Out in the Uinta Basin, Republican Kraig Powell beat David Labrum in the open District 54 seat.

And down in Carbon County, Christine Watkins beat fellow Democrat Grady McEvoy — also in an open seat — in the only Democratic state legislative primary.

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