While Democrats were exuding over their victories in the Utah House of Representatives Wednesday, their Republican counterparts were licking their wounds - and openly thanking their lucky stars things weren't any worse, particularly in Salt Lake County where two Republicans lost and three other incumbents squeaked out winning margins of fewer than 200 votes.
"It could have been worse," said House Majority Leader Craig Moody. "There were a lot of close races on both sides."Salt Lake County voters turned out two incumbent Republican members of the Utah House, giving the Democrats a 19-13 edge among the 32 Salt Lake County members of the House.
Including two seats picked up in Davis County, Democrats narrowed the statewide Republican majority to a 44-31 margin.
The Democratic gain continues a trend begun four years ago when Democrats picked up 13 seats, many of them in traditional Republican districts in Salt Lake County. Democrats now have a virtual stranglehold on all Salt Lake districts, save one. And that seat, won again by Republican Rep. Afton Bradshaw, remains vulnerable with each election.
"Afton runs a close race year after year," Moody said. "And the only reason she wins is because she works harder."
House Minority Whip Frank Pignanelli, D-Salt Lake, who handily won his re-election bid despite being targeted for defeat by the Republican Party, said the strong showing by Salt Lake County Democrats is a sign that Utah voters are once again voting for the person and not the party they represent.
"It shows that when you run on good solid issues with a good candidate, the voters will respond," Pignanelli said. "It also shows that good hard work pays off."
Pignanelli said the Democratic showing was the result of hard campaigning that started in August when House candidates began knocking on doors every night and on Saturdays. "That good old Utah work ethic paid off," Pignanelli said.
Pignanelli said the strong showing will provide the 1992 candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate with a solid support base to build upon. And a stronger block in the House means greater equity in legislation.
"The (power) pendulum is back in the middle. The party with the best candidates will win the most positions," Pignanelli said. "I'm glad to see that Utah has reached that level again. Now (the Republicans) have to take us seriously if we provide good candidates."
The Democratic wins came in Districts 40 and 51. Democrats won the District 51 seat in West Valley City four years ago, but in 1989, the incumbent Rep. Hugh Rush switched to the Republican Party. This time he ran as a Republican and was defeated.
In District 40 in Midvale, Democrat Darrell Jorgensen garnered 50 percent of the vote to turn out incumbent Republican Jed W. Wasden, who picked up 44 percent of the vote.
In three districts, Republicans were able to win the seats of retiring Republicans. In District 34, Republican Raymond Short withstood a strong challenge from Democrat Susan Way to retain the seat vacated by Larry Lunt. In District 39 it was former Rep. Irby Arrington withstanding a challenge from Democrat Kay Leishman to keep the seat vacated by Conrad Maxfield. And Phil H. Uipi won handily against a Libertarian candidate to keep the District 33 seat in Republican control.
For the most part, Republicans maintained control over the southern and southeastern suburbs of Salt Lake County, while Democrats continue to control Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, West Valley City, West Jordan, Magna, Kearns, Midvale and parts of Sandy.
Democrat incumbents winning in head-to-head major party races included Pignanelli in District 23, Blaze Wharton in District 26, David Jones in District 27, Gene Davis in District 30, Janet Rose in District 32, Max Young in District 36 and Kurt E. Oscarson in District 42. Also, Kelly Atkinson in District 46, Arlo James in District 48, Bob Anderton in District 49, Allan Rushton in District 50 and Daniel Tuttle in District 52.
Ronald Greensides, a Democrat, outdistanced former Rep. Sam Taylor, running as an Independent Party candidate, by a 2-1 margin to keep the District 29 seat in Democratic hands. Greensides replaces retiring Democrat Jay Fawson, who unseated Taylor in 1986.
Republican incumbent victors included Bradshaw in District 28, Reese Hunter in District 35, Melvin Brown in District 38, Moody in District 43, Lloyd Frandsen in District 45 and Michael Waddoups in District 47.
Five Democrats and five Republicans had a relatively easy time, running either unopposed or against third-party challengers who stood little chance of winning.
Of course, Republican leaders are concerned about the loss of two more House seats - the third consecutive election Democrats have made gains. "I don't know if it is a trend or not," said House Assistant Majority Whip Byron Harward, R-Provo.
"We recognize that Salt Lake County generally has been less substantially Republican than rest of the state. But Salt Lake County has never been solidly in the control of either party for a long time. We had some good candidates, and with good candidates, eventually it is going to swing back."