Looking past Democrat Bob Stringham's victory in the 3rd Congressional District on Tuesday, the primary election showed state House and Senate incumbents to be strong - and that may bode ill both for Democrats, who want to take control of the House in November's general election, and for tax-cutting candidates who want to oust incumbents who voted for 1987 tax increases.
Not too much can be read into the primary election, considering that in Salt Lake County only 10 percent of the registered voters bothered to go to the polls, a relatively poor turnout. More than 37 percent of the voters cast ballots in the 1984 primary, when Democrats and Republicans had gubernatorial battles.But the state House and Senate races do reflect, to some degree, the feelings of Utah voters concerning state issues - especially the record 1987 tax increases. Of the 11 incumbents challenged within their own parties, nine won, giving heart to Republican leaders concerned over how the tax-protest movement will affect their majority-party status in the Legislature.
The 3rd District Democratic primary didn't hinge on those issues, and so stands apart. Stringham will face Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, on Nov. 8. A new Deseret News/-KSL-TV poll shows that Nielson leads Stringham in the heavily Republican district 52 percent to 20 percent.
Stringham defeated fellow Democrat Craig Oliver, 7,039 votes to 6,483 (52 percent to 48 percent), unofficial results tabulated by the Utah Election Service show. Stringham carried Utah County, his home county, 2-1. He even ran neck-and-neck with Oliver in southwest Salt Lake County, Oliver's home turf.
In addition to Utah County and southwestern Salt Lake County, the 3rd Congressional District includes Carbon, Daggett, Duchesne, Emery, Grand, San Juan, Sanpete, Sevier, Summit, Uintah and Wasatch counties.
Oliver was unable to pull an upset similar to his 1986 defeat of former state Sen. Terry Williams in the U.S. Senate Democratic primary. Oliver beat Williams and went on to be stomped by Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, in the general election. Democratic Party leaders recruited Stringham, wanting a well-known Democrat from Utah County in the race.
As soon as the final vote tally was in, Oliver said Stringham's support from the party played a significant role in the outcome of the election. Stringham's ties to both Geneva Steel and labor unions gave him a strong lead over Oliver in Utah County.
Oliver said during his campaign that Geneva should be held responsible for pollution problems at the plant. Stringham said it was a community problem.
"We spoke out too strong against Geneva; that may have hurt us," Oliver said.
Several minutes after Oliver learned of his defeat he called Stringham and pledged his support to the campaign against Nielson. "I'll do whatever I can," he told Stringham. Oliver said his plans now are to "stay behind the scenes but stay involved with the issues."
"I'm only 36, which is young politically, so I'm not ruling out political races in the future," Oliver said.
"I feel great," said Stringham after his victory. "Now I'll get an opportunity to really go against Howard and let the people know about his voting record, how he's worked for other states and foreign countries and how he's not performed and voted to do things for his constituents in this district.
"Everyone's been telling me since December that I would win (the primary election) and that I would even win against Howard," Stringham said at the Utah County Democratic Party headquarters in Provo. Stringham predicted many GOP voters in his predominantly Republican district will cross over and vote Democratic this fall.
While the Stringham-Oliver race was the most interesting of this low-voter-turnout primary up north, the state GOP Senate race in southwestern Utah between Dixie Leavitt and James Eardley actually drew more voters.
Leavitt beat Eardley 7,943 to 6,669, unofficial returns show. That's 1,090 more voters casting ballots than participated in the whole 3rd District Democratic primary. Nearly 60 percent of the voters turned out in the state Senate race, which, in reality, was the final election. No Democrat filed for the seat.
Democratic and Republican party leaders were watching state House and Senate primary races, for those contests may predict what happens in November's general election.
Of the 11 Republican and Democratic legislative incumbents, only Reps. Ray Schmutz, R-St. George, and Ervin Skousen, R-Salt Lake, lost. All the Democratic incumbents won. The high turnout in the Leavitt-Eardley race may have cost Schmutz his seat. The conservative Schmutz was defeated by college teacher Robert Slack.
In Salt Lake County, the moderate Skousen, who is co-chairman of the Social Service and Health Appropriations Committee, was defeated by the more conservative Jerrold S. Jensen.
Democratic leaders hope there will be a throw-the-rascals-out mentality this year. Because Republicans hold majorities in both houses, such dissatisfaction could mean the Democrats could pick up 11 seats and take control of the House for the first time in a dozen years. Democrats really can't win the Senate because they number so few now.
"We have problems, but this primary vote tells me that the voters are saying, `Let's take a rational approach (to those problems) and not just wipe the slate clean,' " GOP state Chairman Craig Moody said.
Moody is also a state representative and has watched the GOP challenges very carefully. "I can tell you this, all these challenges, and the two defeats in the primary, have sent a clear message. Next January (when the new Legislature meets) it won't be business as usual" for the Republican members.
Tax-limitation advocates can't take a great deal of satisfaction in the primary election, either. Schmutz didn't vote for the 1987 tax increases, yet he was defeated by a moderate Republican. Skousen did vote for the tax increases and was defeated by a tax-limitation advocate.