1 of 1
Rep. Chris Cannon

Utah is pretty predictable in its politics: Republican, Republican, Republican — and keeping those GOP incumbents in office year after year.

But Beehive State Republicans threw a curve in Tuesday's primary, catching other Utahns and national Republicans off guard.

Not only was Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, booted from the 3rd District seat he's held for 12 years, Cannon was thrashed.

Cannon lost to newcomer Jason Chaffetz by just over 9,000 votes. And while that is not a large loss by individual vote numbers, because of the very low voter turnout, Chaffetz won 59.96 percent to 40.04 percent, with just one voting district still not counted as of Wednesday. Any 60-40 victory is classified as a landslide by today's standards.

Hard feelings were clearly showing Wednesday as Cannon talked to the Deseret News in a far-ranging interview.

Cannon declined to endorse Chaffetz — adding that he got so few votes in the primary, he doubted anyone would see any relevance in his endorsement or see it as leading to any real support for Chaffetz.

"I look forward to getting to know Mr. Chaffetz a little better," said Cannon. And maybe an endorsement could come later this summer.

David Wasserman, U.S. House editor of the Cook Political Report, said there are always "a couple ingredients" to an incumbent losing. He said "anger at Washington" alone was not enough to sink Cannon, but the anger, when coupled with opposing views on immigration, did it.

But Cannon said he believes he lost for one main reason: very low voter turnout.

"The people who voted wouldn't have filled Edwards Stadium" — the football stadium at Brigham Young University — said Cannon. He added that now that he is free from elective politics he will be talking more candidly about what is going on in Utah and America.

"Clearly there are some out there who hate me. And every stinking one of them voted" on Tuesday, Cannon joked. Many who supported him "went to the lake" on vacation. Cannon said he had the best voter ID program of all his campaigns this year. "But for whatever reason, people didn't vote."

That is the great tragedy of this election, he said. It is not that he lost, but that so many Utahns "just didn't care" about politics and who should represent them.

Cannon said he wonders if Chaffetz can even win in November — even though the 3rd District is very Republican. The Democrats are banking on Bennion Spencer to change that.

"It doesn't take a genius to see that Republicans (in office) have lost the credibility of people in America and in the 3rd District." Can Chaffetz in just a few months "turn that tide of antagonism?" Cannon asked.

The Democrats in November will turn out their supporters in the 3rd District — but what will the Republicans do? Cannon said.

It would be helpful if national Republicans "could get their message together, but they don't seem able to do that."

Cannon had especially harsh words for Republicans at the May state GOP convention, where he barely survived by nine votes to get into the primary. "The whole convention was uncouth, without manners or civility."

A fringe of people — Cannon does not believe they represent rank-and-file Utah Republicans — have taken over the delegate-selection process, he said. "If you don't agree with them on every jot and tittle, they oppose you. They've taken over the Utah and national (Republican) parties."

Following California?

If Utah Republicans aren't careful, the same thing will happen here as has happened in California and Virginia, Cannon said. "We (Republicans) can't win statewide elections there anymore," said Cannon.

Cannon doesn't see other leading Utah Republicans such as U.S. Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, both R-Utah, suffering his fate in in their next re-elections in 2010 and 2012, respectively. But danger signs are there.

While not anticipating he will run for office again, Cannon said he will keep his campaign account going, if only to try to bring "more reasonable people" into Utah GOP politics.

"I'm going to make a serious effort to use the Internet" and other means to get grass-roots Republicans more involved in GOP mass meetings — "to stand against the bulwark" of the "harsh, boorish people" who are now being elected delegates and other party leaders.

Incumbents rarely lose in the 485-member U.S. House. And being kicked out of office by your own party voters is even more infrequent. Only two other incumbents, the Christian Science Monitor reports — both from Maryland, one Republican and one Democrat — have been defeated in their 2008 re-election efforts by party challengers.

Unfortunately for Cannon, he now joins an exclusive club.

In recent Utah memory, only one other Republican congressional incumbent has been kicked out of office by his own party voters — former Rep. Merrill Cook was booted from his 2nd District seat in the 2000 GOP primary. Ironically, Cook lost to fellow Republican Derek Smith by about the same margin as the 2008 GOP primary results — Cook got only 41 percent of the vote to Smith's 59 percent.

National Republicans can take one bit of solace, however, in Cannon's loss.

In 2000 Smith went on to lose to Democrat Jim Matheson in a district that — even with GOP gerrymandering in 2001 — has moved more to the Democratic side. But Utah's 3rd District remains one of the most Republican in the nation.

So there is still a strong chance Cannon's loss Tuesday won't mean one less Republican in Congress.

What next in Utah?

Perhaps looking forward to his own re-election in 2010, at the state GOP convention Sen. Bob Bennett wondered aloud if Cannon — or any incumbent — could get out of the convention considering the anger of some delegates. Bennett told the Deseret News then that he would run again in two years.

But it was not the delegates who kicked Cannon out of office. It was primary voters.

Sen. Hatch, speaking recently to the Deseret News editorial board, chaired by the newspaper's editor, Joe Cannon, Chris Cannon's older brother, went on at some length about how stupid it would be for 3rd District GOP voters to turn out the 12-year incumbent for someone new, who would have no seniority and lack the trust fellow House members have in Cannon.

Hatch also explained in detail how conservative Republicans, such as himself, Chris Cannon, Bennett and 1st District Rep. Rob Bishop, are not responsible for the current large federal budget spending and growing deficits. Even when there was a Republican president and GOP control in Congress, "moderate" Republican senators wouldn't vote for budget restraints, Hatch said.

Hatch said, however, that he too sees real unhappiness in the Utah and American electorate. Whether that discontent will continue into the 2010 and 2012 elections remains to be seen. But federal officeholders from Utah can't be happy to see a fellow incumbent nearly beaten in a convention, then trounced in a primary, and all done by an opponent with very little money and few endorsements.

Wednesday, Hatch congratulated Chaffetz and said he would work hard for Chaffetz's election. Hatch added: "It is important to 3rd District residents that (Chaffetz) become as effective as possible in Washington while he builds up seniority."

But Chaffetz has placed the blame for America's current problems at Washington's door, not just pointing a finger at congressional Democrats but at Utah's GOP delegation as well.

139 comments on this story

Chaffetz said that Republicans "blew their chance" at controlling the federal government, and have failed not only Americans in general but specifically Republican voters who put them in office.

The "abandonment of Republican core values" by Washington GOP officeholders must be reversed, Chaffetz said.

Cannon said he has no regrets and that he stood for sound, reasonable issues that he was proud to espouse. "My positions are clear and consistent." He choked up when he told the newspaper how thankful he was for his family, staff and supporters over the years.


Contributing: Suzanne Struglinski

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com