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Utah GOP, Democratic state conventions expected to be more representative of voters

Published: Friday, April 20 2012 5:04 p.m. MDT

Senator Orrin Hatch speaks at the Salt Lake County GOP convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 14, 2012. Hatch will be in the spotlight Saturday as state delegates will attend their respective party's state conventions to choose candidates for federal and statewide offices.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Read more: Decision 2012: Utah GOP, Democratic state convention coverage, delegate information

SALT LAKE CITY — With the gap narrowing between the political views of Utah voters and party delegates, the results of Saturday's Republican and Democratic state conventions are expected to be more representative of the electorate.

"That has to be true," Utah Foundation President Steve Kroes said. "This body of delegates that has more moderate views definitely will impact the outcome of the conventions."  

A recent foundation survey shows big changes from 2010, when state delegates ousted longtime GOP Sen. Bob Bennett and forced the state's only Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, into a primary against a liberal opponent.

This time around, Republican delegates especially have new priorities that parallel those of the party's voters, dropping protecting gun rights and preventing illegal immigration from the 2010 list in favor of increasing the number of quality jobs and reducing crime.

GOP voters and delegates differed this year mainly on where to rank improving K-12 education. Among Democrats, voters saw improving higher education as a priority, but the party's delegates listed improving the ethics of public officials instead.

Also, more delegates and voters moved from extreme to neutral positions on a number of so-called "hot-button" issues including the need for anti-discrimination laws to protect gays and lesbians, abortion and global warming, Kroes said.

One of the biggest shifts identified in the survey, is how seniority in Congress is viewed. Two years ago, only 17 percent of the GOP delegates agreed it was valuable to send incumbents back to Washington, compared to 44 percent this election.

Kroes said the differences are a result of a record turnout at the March caucus meetings where delegates were selected, encouraged by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a state Republican Party campaign and GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Efforts to "retire" the six-term Republican started last year, fueled by FreedomWorks, a conservative PAC based in Washington, D.C. Both have gone hard after delegates who now have the decision in their hands.  

Former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist is Hatch's biggest challenger. He may have enough support to force the longtime senator into a primary election, despite the foundation poll suggesting Hatch may squeak out of the convention without a runoff.

Democrats Scott Howell, a former state senator, and XMission founder Pete Ashdown appear headed for a primary for their party's nomination. Ashdown lost to Hatch in the general election six years ago, as did Howell in 2000.

Another incumbent, GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, also faces an intraparty fight. Like Hatch, the foundation survey suggests he may be able to win the support of enough delegates to meet the 60 percent threshold required to avoid a primary.

Kroes said especially in the governor's election, Republican challengers appear to be further to the right than the delegates. "It seems like some of them might be playing to a crowd that's two years old and not there anymore," he said.

In the 4th Congressional District, Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love and former state lawmakers Stephen Sandstrom and Carl Wimmer will battle for the GOP nomination. Two of the three will likely square off in a primary election. Whoever emerges from that trio will face Matheson, a five-term Democratic representative, in November.

While the 2nd Congressional District race has received less attention than the battle for the new 4th District seat, there are plenty of contenders for both the Republican and Democratic nominations and plenty of undecided delegates.

Former Utah House speaker Dave Clark and author Chris Stewart may be the two of 11 GOP candidates headed to a primary, according to the survey, while former state lawmaker Jay Seegmiller leads among the Democrats in the race.

The attorney general's race on the Republican side also could end in a primary. Assistant attorney general John Swallow and corporate lawyer Sean Reyes are vying to replace Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who is not seeking re-election after three terms. Weber County Attorney Dee Smith is the lone Democrat seeking the job.

Kroes said there's always room for surprises at a party convention.

"You never know what can happen," he said. "Now we'll watch and we'll see if the proof is in the pudding."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com, romboy@desnews.com, Twitter: dnewspolitics, dennisromboy

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