SALT LAKE CITY — With a special election for the remainder of the former attorney general's term, a wide-open congressional race and the possibility of a controversial ballot initiative, November 2014 should be pretty exciting, right?
"It's pretty dull, to be honest," said Quin Monson, head of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "All the interesting things will happen in May or June."
That's when the state's majority Republicans will choose their nominees for the November general election ballot, either at the party's convention or, if they can't decide there, in a primary election.
Democrats don't yet have candidates for attorney general or the 4th District Congressional seat. Last month, Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah's only Democrat in Congress, stunned the party by announcing he won't seek an eighth term.
For the GOP, Mia Love holds the advantage in the 4th District race after coming close to defeating Matheson in 2012 with the help of national party leaders, including U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Love, the former mayor of Saratoga Springs, kicked off her campaign at last year's GOP state convention and has been busy fundraising. Her only intra-party challenger so far is businessman Bob Fuehr, but that's expected to change.
Still, Monson said, it's going to be tough to take on Love at this point.
"Matheson didn't give the congressional wannabes enough time. They've got to get things together," he said, and start raising money by the end of the month to take on her "financial juggernaut" of a campaign.
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, agreed it would be difficult for competitive candidates to jump in the congressional race.
"I expect other challengers, and the right one could make it interesting," Jowers said. "But the big question is whether the so-called right one would want a piece of the Mia Love machine at this late point."
Neither Monson nor Jowers believe the Democrats have much chance to retake the attorney general's office for the first time since the 1990s now that embattled Attorney General John Swallow has stepped down.
His replacement, Sean Reyes, lost to Swallow in the 2012 Republican primary election and has already committed to running this year for the remaining two years of Swallow's term.
Reyes, sworn in as attorney general on Dec. 30, sought to be named one of the GOP State Central Committee's three nominees and Gov. Gary Herbert's choice for attorney general by pledging to run again to keep the office in party hands.
"My best chance of winning re-election is doing a great job in the office right now, so that's all I'm really focused on," Reyes told reporters when asked about having to mount a campaign so soon after taking over the troubled office.
State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said there's a "tremendous opportunity" for Democrats as a result of the Swallow scandal. Swallow remains under investigation on allegations that include influence peddling.
Republicans "want to say it's over, it was one bad person, everything's going to be fine," Dabakis said. "Republicans have clearly overstepped their bounds with the people of this state."
Jowers, though, said Reyes shouldn't face real opposition from either party.
"Like it or not, the Democrats will be running against Reyes in 2014 and not the memory of Swallow," Jowers said. "If Reyes does a decent job, voters will reward him with another two years."
GOP challengers face looking as if they aren't supportive of a fellow party member, he said.
"I'm not sure you're going to get a top-flight contender against Reyes right now. I think there's quite a bit of goodwill to have him succeed and acknowledgements that this is a pretty tough assignment for him," Jowers said.
Monson said the attorney general's race is Reyes' to lose "if he's a straight arrow and has no problems."
Democrats "always have a chance. The probability is never zero," Monson said. "But even if they clone Jim Matheson and run him for attorney general, it's a difficult uphill battle in Utah to get Republicans to vote for your candidate."
He said the only possible excitement that could be on the November ballot is the Count My Vote initiative to change Utah's unique caucus and convention system political parties use to nominate candidates to a direct primary.
Initiative backers, including Jowers, former Gov. Mike Leavitt and political consultant LaVarr Webb, who writes a column for the Deseret News, have until April to collect more than 100,000 voter signatures to qualify for the ballot.10 comments on this story
"They have the resources that they should be able to manage it," Monson said. "If Count My Vote qualifies, I think it will do very well. The general electorate is in favor of a primary."
Jowers said Count My Vote may be the only surprise on the November ballot.
He said the group has already collected about 40,000 signatures, including at Utah Jazz games and in Megaplex movie theaters. Gail Miller, owner of the team and the theater chain, is a leader of Count My Vote.
"I'm really happy where Count My Vote is right now," Jowers said.
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