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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Our brackets are shot, time to focus on political minutiae

Published: Sunday, March 30 2014 6:20 p.m. MDT

Columnists Pignanelli and Webb examine political minutiae in this week's column.

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Now that our NCAA brackets have blown apart, we can focus on other things, especially political minutiae. Hopefully, our political instincts are better than our basketball knowledge.

The candidate filing deadline has passed. A record number of incumbent Republicans and Democrats lack serious opposition and will cruise to victory. Some political observers and media voices claim that such uncontested races diminish democracy and breed bad government. Is this really a problem?

Pignanelli: " Ah, but it's nice to be the opposition, nice to be a bone in somebody's throat."--Jack Levine Readers beware. Every two years political pundits, ivory tower academics and activists express deep disappointment when the two major parties are not represented in any race. Their list of grave concerns is well-intentioned nonsense. Encouraging hapless souls to place their name on the ballot, to ensure "the seat is not given away” does not preserve our Republic. The actual result is decent citizens becoming embittered when realizing they are sacrificial lambs.

Approximately 10 percent of the Utah's legislative elections in 2014 will be uncontested (the national average is 30 percent). Moreover, most of the reddest and bluest House districts in Utah- where the minority challenger has no chance- are contested. Oftentimes, an election is unopposed by a major party candidate because other contenders are plugged into local civic affairs, and believe the incumbent is a fine public servant or too popular. This is a compliment, not an insult, to democracy. Having fought hand-to-hand combat in several tough elections, I was grateful for the free passes that came my way.

Stout citizens willing to campaign with vigor because they want to serve or promote an alternative approach best serve our democracy. Just placing names on the ballot is pointless and counterproductive.

Webb: In the redistricting process over a number of decades legislators have created many safe Republican and Democratic districts (although it’s impossible not to create quite a few safe GOP districts in Utah). So unless a strong intra-party challenger emerges, most incumbents are safe bets for re-election.

That can actually be a problem for the safe incumbent. A competitive race motivates politicians to reconnect with voters, visiting with them, hearing their issues, and responding to their concerns. Too often, when incumbents face no serious competition election after election, they start to take their voters for granted, lose touch, and think they are forever entitled to the position. That’s when they’re vulnerable. A hard-working challenger can beat them. Good politicians always run scared and work hard to re-win voter support even if their re-election is certain.

State Sen. Jim Dabakis suddenly retired as State Democratic Party chair, for health reasons, but will continue as a state senator. What impact does this have on Utah Democrats?

Pignanelli: Dabakis was a controversial chairman, but generated excitement in some ranks. He may be the best fundraiser the party ever produced. He organized a great staff, which will minimize any disruption in campaign support for candidates. Republicans are disappointed because they love to caricature an outspoken Democrat as a dire threat to Utahns –a role Dabakis played with enthusiasm. (I was the GOP’s monster de jure in the late 1980s.)

Webb: Dabakis is the biggest ego in Utah politics today and is always good for entertainment and a pithy quote. But he hasn’t been good for the Democratic Party. While Dabakis listed many accomplishments in his resignation letter, winning elections wasn’t one of them. With Congressman Jim Matheson retiring, Democrats are at their lowest ebb in decades, with Dabakis presiding over part of the decline. In his letter, Dabakis said he would now be free to revert to his true self: “I may well morph into the blazing liberal I have always felt, but needed to moderate out as a statewide spokesperson.” He actually didn’t hide his “blazing liberal” side very well and he hurt moderate Democrats. Mainstream Democrats like Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams will spend more time running away from Dabakis-style politics than embracing it. So, for the sake of electing more Republicans, I hope Dabakis stays active and stays vocal.

Although almost 6 months away, what issues are likely to predominate in Utah's 2014 general election?

Pignanelli: Utah's Congressional Republicans will bang away at Obamacare leading up to the election, and will be an issue for races down the ballot. Foreign policy rarely matters in Utah, but Vladimir Putin's antics may be a talking point in October. Medicare expansion, pro and con, will be used as a weapon. Both sides will utilize the traditional bogeymen: Nancy Pelosi, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, etc.

Webb: 2014 is going to be a big Republican year, both in Utah and nationally. My wish is for Republicans in Utah and nationally to use the favorable political climate to show we are the party of great ideas to solve pressing public policy problems — the party of solutions, not the party of ideological warfare.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email:lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email:frankp@xmission.com.

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