"Throw the bums out" may have been a common theme of the 1990 election. But in terms of the Utah House, voters as a whole seemed to prefer the status quo, returning 57 incumbents to office and voting out only six.
But those facing re-election bids - both Republican and Democrat incumbents - found the going a whole lot tougher than a lot of people expected."We underestimated the strong anti-incumbency mood out there," said House Majority Leader Craig Moody, R-Sandy. "There were an awful lot of real close races that could have gone either way."
Republicans had gone into the election optimistic they could pick up one or two seats. They came out with four fewer seats, but they still hold a commanding 44-31 majority.
"We're awfully disappointed," Moody said. "Anytime you expect to gain and end up losing four seats, you have to be disappointed. But, compared to 1986, when we lost 13 seats, this was a banner year. It could have been a lot worse."
In the campaign's biggest surprise, Rep. Beverly White, D-Tooele, was soundly defeated by Grantsville attorney Merrill Nelson. White was first appointed to the House in 1971 and had successfully won re-election ever since, becoming a fixture in the Utah House.
Republicans also reclaimed the Logan seat they lost four years ago to Frank Prante, whose medical problems forced him to withdraw from his re-election bid. Prante had been the first Democrat elected from Cache County in 32 years. Fred R. Hunsaker defeated Democrat Michael W. Baugh.
Republicans were, in turn, unpleasantly surprised to lose two seats - those of Rep. Scott Holt, R-Syracuse, and Rep. Don Bush, R-Clearfield - in Davis County, which is a traditional Republican stronghold.
Republicans also lost two vulnerable seats in traditionally Democratic Weber County and lost two more seats in Salt Lake County.
Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle knew it would be a tough campaign year for everybody (although 28 incumbents ran unopposed or against only minor-party candidates). But no one gauged the effect of national dissatisfaction on local races.
"We knew the public was angry, but we didn't know it would translate to the local level like it did," Moody said. "And judging from the number of close races, it wasn't a backlash against Republicans or Democrats. It was a vote against incumbents."
House Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich agreed with Moody that the public is angry but added that Utahns are expressing that anger by voting for a two-party political system and greater tax equity.
"I wasn't surprised at all (to gain four seats)," he said. "People are saying it's time for a two-party system."
Added Minority Whip Frank Pignanelli, "Instead of a base of 14 or 15 Democrats in the Legislature like (former governor) Matheson had, we will have about 35 to build on for the statewide governor and Senate races in 1992. Now the Republicans will have to take us seriously."