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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Utah politics is full of questions heading into 2012

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 1:11 p.m. MDT

The Tony award-winning and nationally recognized Utah Shakespearean Festival is underway in Cedar City. We endorse and recommend this cultural experience to all politicos, especially because the bard offers so many insights into human nature, including the tricks and tools of the political trade (character assassination, double-dealing, empire-building, secret assignations, covert machinations, etc.).

An example is the Hamlet-like posturing that occurs as Utah's political princes deliberate their political futures. Currently, we have three "Princes of Denmark" (Jason Chaffetz, Jim Matheson and Dan Liljenquist) feeling angst, wringing their hands, and staring at skulls while trying to divine the next stages of their personal political paths.

National tea party organizations continue to hammer Sen. Orrin Hatch, while pressuring Congressman Chaffetz to challenge him. Chaffetz is certainly making all the right noises about a statewide race, but will he make the plunge?

Pignanelli: "The first rule of politics is never to say never." — William V. Shannon. This must be a grueling time for Chaffetz. He is a bright light in the House Republican Caucus, on a fast track for leadership with GOP elders awarding him incredible opportunities. Also, polling demonstrates that he is a favorite alternative to Hatch, especially with tea party delegates.

Thus the Chaffetz dilemma: does he abandon a great career in the House to challenge Utah's senior senator — who daily builds his campaign in response to such a threat. Many political insiders believe Chaffetz goes right to the edge of the abyss, peers over (and maybe even spits), but returns to his House endeavors. If he hasn't announced by Labor Day, he is unlikely to run.

Webb: By waiting so long to announce, Chaffetz is keeping other prospective Hatch challengers at bay. But if he declines to run, they will have little time to gear up for a statewide race. So some grumbling is occurring over Chaffetz' indecision. Chaffetz is quite confident about the race, based on his visits with delegates. But Hatch is planning to bring a lot of new delegates into the process who don't know Chaffetz. Hatch also enjoys an enormous financial advantage and broad support by the political establishment. The likelihood of a Chaffetz Senate run is 90 percent. But there's still 10 percent uncertainty.

A number of polls have recently affirmed that Congressman Matheson is Utah's most popular politician, and he has a real shot to beat the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate — or even Gov. Gary Herbert. Does Matheson go for higher office?

Webb: Matheson always does well in the surveys, but not as well in the polls that really count — elections. He barely won in 2010. If the Republican Legislature gives him a really terrible congressional district he will either run in a different district or seek statewide office. But the statewide electoral math remains really tough for a Democrat. The political climate will determine the outcome. Perhaps Utah voters will be so disgusted with partisanship, stalemate and gridlock in Congress that they will support a centrist who pledges to bring the sides together. But, more likely, Utah voters will be even more angry at President Barack Obama and the Democrats (like they were in 2010) and it will be a very tough election for Matheson, whatever office he seeks.

Pignanelli: Many politicos are assuming that Matheson unofficially launched his bid for the U.S. Senate by supporting the controversial Republican "Cap, Cut and Balance" proposal. But Matheson is a long time anti-deficit/debt purist, with little regard to partisan wrangling. Indeed, a vote against the GOP plan would have been an anomaly.

Matheson's maverick style is so enjoyed by Utahns, that he is a formidable statewide force. But Matheson understands Utahns love to use the ballot box to send "messages" to D.C. — regardless of affection for a candidate — and 2012 is a likely message year. Redistricting will substantially drive his ultimate decision. A fair result will prompt a return to the House. An obvious gerrymander pushes him to higher office — what does have to lose?

State Sen. Dan Liljenquist is well known in political circles for accomplishing the "unaccomplishable". Many are pushing him to consider a run against Hatch or against Herbert. Does the respected senator offer his abilities at a different level, or keep them available at the State House (until 2016 at least)?

Pignanelli: Liljenquist is the ideal public servant who cares more about solving problems than throwing partisan bombs. But he is less well known than the other major contenders and should have initiated a campaign early to catch up. Liljenquist is likely to remain a state senator (Utah is lucky) and move to higher office later in the decade (the feds would be lucky).

Webb: It's an immense task to organize statewide in preparation for March 2012 party caucuses. Liljenquist is already late. With a young family, and with Chaffetz and Hatch far ahead in organizational infrastructure, Liljenquist will likely sit this one out and prepare for 2016.

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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