Democrat Wayne Owens' success is, in some ways, an enigma to the Utah Republican Party. How to beat this guy in a district that is 2-1 Republican?
This year Genevieve Atwood - considered by many GOP strategists the perfect candidate for the 1990s - takes her shot at the man the Republicans just can't beat.That's "beat" in the 2nd Congressional District, which includes all but the southwest portion of Salt Lake County. Owens' statewide races - for the U.S. Senate in 1974 and the governorship in 1984 - both ended in defeat.
But he had strong showings - considering the number of Democrats vs. Republicans - in the 2nd District in 1986 and 1988.
Owens says he should be sent back to the U.S. House for a third term because Utahns need at least one Democrat in that Democratic-controlled body. He says he's effective for district voters and fights the battles other Utah politicians won't. He works well with Sens. Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch, both Republicans, in the Senate, he says, and as a team they deliver for Utah.
He says he votes his conscience, not the party line, and has angered Democratic leaders over his support of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution and line-item veto for the president.
Atwood says she's a "hard-line" conservative on money matters but moderate on social issues. "As a woman, I'm caring about the poor and less fortunate." She says Owens is a big spender with more loyalty to special-interest political action committees and out-of-state contributors than to 2nd District voters.
Owens says Atwood may be the woman in the race, but he's the women's candidate. He points to one of the few major differences between the two on social issues - their stands on the family-leave bill that was before Congress this year. The bill would have given 12 weeks of unpaid leave to anyone - man or woman - who faces a family emergency involving a child, spouse or parent, with his job protected until he returns. Owens favors it, saying women must have such protection for pregnancies. Atwood opposes it, saying male managers would use the law to "impose subtle discrimination" against women and not hire them into key management positions.
Atwood slams Owens on his spending votes, saying he voted with Democratic leaders on almost all budget authorization bills this past year, "never even once trying to cut spending by 5 percent, not 2 percent. I'd cut government before I'd vote for a tax increase."
Owens criticizes Atwood for opposing the final budget compromise. "I supported her (Republican) president, she didn't."
Several years ago the National Republican Party paid for a poll in the county, specifically designed to find the best type of candidate to oppose Owens. The best generic challenger: a moderate Republican woman.
Enter Atwood, the first woman GOP nominee for federal office in Utah in 30 years.
A former state legislator from the Avenues area of Salt Lake City, Atwood was the director of the state Geological and Mineral Survey when she decided last year to run for Congress against Owens, "a man I know well and like personally," she says.
Former Congressman Dan Marriott already was telling Republican leaders he was going to run, and Atwood was encouraged by some Republicans to stay out of the race. But she got in. She beat, with the help of non-Republicans who invaded the Sept. 11 primary, the better-known, better-financed Marriott - clearly an upset.
Owens was worried. It's always tough to run against a woman. And here was a bright, articulate woman closing to within 9 percent in public opinion polls. Owens had outspent his previous political opponents by significant amounts, but Atwood could afford to put $120,000 of her own money into her race.
Many thought Owens vulnerable: He'd been criticized for meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and spending time embroiled in Middle Eastern political affairs. He'd been criticized for trying to introduce wolves into Yellowstone Park, for suggesting 5 million acres of wilderness land in Utah, for voting to raise his own pay by 40 percent, for voting with the House Democratic leadership 96 percent of the time.
Owens suffered some October setbacks, also. He touted his effectiveness in Congress by pointing to the huge Central Utah Project refunding bill - more than $300 million for the water project in a year of budget deficit fighting that looked sure to pass. But the CUP bill failed final approval the last hour of the 101st Congress.
But with those setbacks came success, too. Owens, along with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, succeeded in getting compensation for Utah victims of nuclear-bomb testing fallout.
He took the lead in fighting and defeating the Thousand Springs power plant planned for northeastern Nevada, a plant that Owens believes would have dumped hundreds of thousands of tons of pollutants along the Wasatch Front.
For her part, Atwood has been criticized by Democrats for some of her votes in the Utah House, where she represented the traditionally Democratic lower Avenues district. Opponents argue those votes show an insensitivity to the elderly and veterans. Atwood refutes such claims, saying the votes are taken out of context.