A legislative race is kind of like granola: You know it's good for you, but it's not exactly exciting.
But there's a new granola on the political scene this year in a bright new packaging. And it's getting a lot of people excited.Special interest groups, lobbyists and political action committees are becoming involved in legislative campaigns like never before. And candidates are working harder than ever with greater financial backing than ever before.
"There's more interest across the board this year," said Republican Party Chairman Craig Moody. "There has also been more money spent across the board than ever before."
In one hotly contested race, Moody said, Sen. Glade Nielsen, R-Roy, has spent more than $25,000 trying to keep his seat - an astronomical amount for a legislative spot.
Rep. Frank Prante, the first Democrat elected in Logan in 32 years, has taken to cable television air waves, the first time television has been used in a legislative race.
In scores of other races, the campaigning is so hotly contested that acrimonious charges and counter charges are being exchanged like Halloween candy. In one case, Republican Randy Tippetts, Ogden, is claiming his recent arrest on drug charges was politically motivated.
"I can't believe we have had so much negative campaigning," Moody said. "There is some of the dirtiest crap I have ever seen."
What's at stake? Control of the Utah House of Representatives.
Republicans have had it since 1976, and Democrats believe they can get it. In 1986, Democrats picked up 13 seats, almost doubling their numbers from 14 to 27.
Democrats are banking on a basic message to voters: "Throw the rascals out!"
Democratic Party Chairman Randy Horiuchi hopes the message will galvanize Utah voters' discontent with the Republican-controlled Legislature and give the Democrats control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1975.
Few changes are expected in the state Senate. Republicans are even confident they can boost their majority by picking up the Weber County Senate seat held by Democratic Sen. Darrell Renstrom, while Democrats are confident they can hold their seats and pick up one or two others.
"I still believe we can take a slim majority in the House," Horiuchi said. "Voters want to see new people in office. The Republicans have had their chance, and it's time now for a change."
Moody doesn't think the Democratic message is selling well. Voters had a chance to throw the incumbents out during the primary elections, and most incumbents won.
"I don't see the public willing to make wholesale changes," Moody said.
If Democrats are going to take control, they must win 11 seats in the House. That's just not going to happen, answered Moody, himself running for re-election to the Utah House.
"Last time, the Republicans were caught napping, and that's not going to happen again," Moody said. "I can see the Democrats picking up maybe four of our seats, and I can see us picking up maybe four of theirs. The most we'd see is a four-seat swing one way or the other."
People laughed at Horiuchi when he predicted in 1986 that Democrats would pick up 15 seats, and the Democrats picked up a surprising 13 seats. Horiuchi this time is confident Democrats will pick up the 11 seats for a majority.
Even without a majority, a strong Democratic minority is important to the party, particularly with Democrat Ted Wilson leading in the race for governor. By maintaining the present House balance, Democrats will be able to sustain a governor's veto, giving a Democratic governor a strong bargaining position when dealing with the GOP majority.
Republicans, however, are fighting back with a fury, seeking to recapture the seats they lost in 1986. They have targeted first-term Democratic Reps. Frank Pignanelli, Gene Davis, Janet Rose, Glenn Bird, Frank Prante, Haynes Fuller and Joe Hull for defeat. Those Democratic incumbents all face challenges by the Republicans they beat in 1986.
But Moody conceded Republicans are in serious trouble on other fronts. In District 36 and 49, two Salt Lake County seats currently held by retiring Republican Reps. Jack DeMann and Boyd Warnick, Moody has virtually conceded defeat.
"And there's a good chance we may lose (House Majority Whip) Olene Walker's seat (District 24) and Craig Peterson's Utah County seat (District 59; Peterson is running for the Senate)," Moody said. "And we may lose Evan Olsen's seat (District 5) in Cache County."
Horiuchi is predicting Democrats could sweep the Republican stronghold of Cache County, unseating not only Evans, but Rep. Stephen Bodily and Sen. Lyle Hillyard.
But while Republicans may lose ground in Cache County, Moody said Republicans are going to pick up seats in strongly Democratic Weber County and southern Utah County, as well as Salt Lake County.
In Weber County, there is an excellent probability, said Moody, that Republican Dixon Pitcher will unseat Rep. Haynes Fuller in the District 8 race and that Republican Martin Stephens will defeat K. Duane Winchester.
The Democrats, tasting success in staunchly Republican Cache County, are now focusing on the Republican stronghold of Davis County where Republican Reps. Franklin Knowlton and Scott Holt have been targeted for defeat. Democrats believe James Hurst can defeat Republican Don E. Bush in another race.
"But I'm worried about the Joe Hull (D-Hooper) race (District 13)," Horiuchi said. "We could lose that seat."
Democrats are also counting on picking up District 27, currently held by Rep. LaMont Richards. And the races in Districts 38, 40 and 47, all held by Republican incumbents, "are right on the bubble and we could win them."
On the bubble for Republicans is the Springville seat held by Democrat Glenn Bird. Former Rep. Don Strong is making a strong bid to recapture his seat.
The key to a Democratic majority, said Horiuchi, is to "touch every hand in the district. We may get out-spent, but we won't get outworked."
"Our candidates are working like madmen," answered Moody. "And our polling shows it is paying off."