Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: The political dynamics of Utah's congressional districts

Published: Monday, Oct. 5 2015 4:32 p.m. MDT

Utah Rep. Jim Matheson (Deseret News archive) Utah Rep. Jim Matheson (Deseret News archive)

For the first time in history, Utah has candidates running in four different congressional districts. Most of the interest is in the wide-open contests for the GOP nominations in the 2nd and 4th districts, but some intrigue exists even in the 1st and 3rd. We look at some of the political dynamics.

4th District

Webb: This is the only district that will likely feature a lively and hard-fought general election battle. Thus, the contest among the four legitimate GOP contenders isn't just about who is the purest-of-the-pure conservative, but a big focus should also be on electability — who can defeat Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson.

The GOP contest includes two tea party candidates, Carl Wimmer and Stephen Sandstrom, and two more mainstream (but still conservative) candidates in Mia Love and Jay Cobb. Wimmer started very early and thought he had this nomination locked up. But solid competition has emerged.

So who can beat Matheson (who is leading in the polls at this early point, mostly on the strength of his name identification)? Conventional wisdom suggests that if Republicans nominate someone too far right, Matheson will more easily pick up independent and moderate Republican votes.

Wimmer and Sandstrom are seasoned legislative conservatives. Cobb, an attorney, is a mainstream conservative with congressional staff experience. Love is the most intriguing candidate of all. She is mayor of Saratoga Springs but is relatively young and inexperienced.

She is a solid campaigner and is very attractive at the national GOP level because she would be the first female Republican black member of Congress in history. She would bring in a gusher of national money against Matheson in the general election.

Pignanelli: "I will not deny that there are men in the district better qualified than I to go to Congress, but gentlemen, these men are not in the race." — Sam Rayburn

The newest congressional district offers the most fun for politicos. Regardless of how one may view his policies, Carl Wimmer is 250 pounds of effusive charisma and is fluent in "tea partyese" — an important qualification for the convention. Republicans are impressed with Sandstrom's business acumen. But the candidate who is creating the most chatter is Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love. Like many Utahns, I was first introduced to Love through the LDS Church produced video — which highlights her amazing background as the daughter of Haitian immigrants. She closes with "I am a mother, I am a mayor, I am a Mormon." After wiping the tears from my eyes, I came very close to calling my bishop to get the baptismal font ready. (Mom, I'm just kidding). Because she would be the first female Republican African-American member of Congress, Love is attracting attention on the national level.

Regardless of the new district and boundaries, many Republicans view Matheson as unbeatable — his finances and popularity are just too strong. Others believe that a Romney ticket and a less than favorable district could be the end of Matheson in 2012. What is undeniable — there is no better campaigner than Matheson. The fight for the 4th will be fun

2nd District

Webb: This is the most crowded GOP race, with David Clark and Chris Stewart emerging as the candidates to beat, but with Jason Buck, Cherilyn Eager, John Willoughby, Howard Wallack and Chuck Williams all legitimate contenders. It will take multiple balloting to see who emerges from the convention, and a primary runoff is likely.

Pignanelli: The 2nd Congressional District contest was originally viewed as a snoozer. However interesting things are beginning to develop under the radar. For example, Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell is a cosponsor of Dave Clark's recent fundraiser. Yet, his Chief Deputy is Cody Stewart, the nephew to congressional opponent Chris Stewart. With all these contenders, this was a likely occurrence.

1st District

Webb: Rep. Rob Bishop has been a very conservative, very reliable lawmaker for many years. He's been a tea party favorite and hasn't faced serious competition either from within or without the Republican Party. But in today's tumultuous politics, even Bishop could face a challenge from his right. With Utah's nomination process dominated by the far right, no one can be comfortable.

Pignanelli: I have heard that some tea party activists may challenge Bishop because he did not comply with 100 percent of whatever agenda they pulled from the mother-ship orbiting Jupiter. The best response is to laugh.

3rd District

Webb: Rep. Jason Chaffetz should cruise to the GOP nomination and easily win the general election. But Chaffetz also is hearing grumbling from some tea party quarters because he is a visible and vocal Mitt Romney supporter.

Pignanelli: Some believe Chaffetz's actions on behalf of Romney is an angle for a job. I disagree. I love playing explosive video games with my boys — so we can deliver all sorts of virtual TNT to our cyber-enemies. Chaffetz is on a similar high — blasting political opponents is fun and great publicity. The congressman is obviously enjoying the detonation of so many targets (Newt Gingrich and President Barack Obama supporters).

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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