The most ambitious, forthright and public-minded political animals are now officially uncaged.
With Friday night's filings for state and county offices, the 1988 election field is set. And with Wednesday's announcement by industrialist Jon Huntsman that he won't challenge Gov. Norm Bangerter for the GOP nomination, a bitter intra-party fight has been avoided.The next eight months won't be so much of a horse race as walk-athon. Some candidates will try to get a big lead and hold it. But even they must sit down to rest a bit. Others will conserve their financial and political strength, waiting for intra-party fights to dilute and tire.
The political season has started early, mainly because of the governor's race and Huntsman's surprise-I'm-in, surprise-I'm-out foray. Blood will cool a bit this spring, surge in the June party conventions, wane in the dog days of August and pick up as the Sept. 13 primary election draws near.
By October, the state will be in an election flurry.
One thing is clear: This election year will see more money spent on campaigns in Utah than ever before. The spending has already started. Bangerter, facing what he thought was a strong challenge from Huntsman within the Republican Party, has spent about $100,000 on TV advertisements.
Huntsman, less well-known but still leading Bangerter in early polls, ordered more than $250,000 of TV advertisements before pulling out of the race last week. He's canceled those ads now and will try to get some of his money back.
Democrat Ted Wilson and Bangerter each say they'll spend about $1 million. Independent gubernatorial candidate Merrill Cook estimates he'll spend $400,000.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, plans on spending $2 million or more. His main Democratic opponent, Brian Moss, hopes he can raise $1 million.
Second District Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, says he'll raise $800,000 and his Republican challenger Richard Snelgrove wants $700,000.
And this is only April.
All this cash should help Utah's economy. In fact, Moss hopes Hatch will spend $4 million. "Our economy stinks and if he can put that much money into it, great," Moss says with some sincerity.
But while money will drive the races, it won't be among the main issues this election year.
Utah is lagging in spirit, lackluster in job creation and business growth. Even the incumbents realize that many citizens aren't satisfied. Every candidate is talking economic development, job creation, leadership and holding the line on taxes.
Tens of thousands of people have left the state in recent years because they can't find good jobs. High school and college graduates leave their education years with uncertain futures.
This unrest is reflected in public opinion polls. Fifty-three percent believe things in the country are on the wrong track, 57 percent have the same worries about Utah, Dan Jones & Associates found in a poll conducted for the Deseret News and KSL-TV.
Republicans control every major office in the state, except Owens' 2nd District, and both houses of the Legislature. Democrats are gearing up to point out the Republicans' shortfalls while recalling the good old days of the 1960s and 1970s, when Democrats held some power.
At the top of the ticket, of course, will be the U.S. presidential race. Republicans are encouraged about that, saying they always do well in presidential years high voter turnout and enthusiastic supporters. But Ronald Reagan won't be on the ballot this year and so his coattails are gone.
Next is the U.S. Senate race. Hatch is a clear favorite over Moss, with minor party candidates picking up the scraps. (Retired FBI agent Joe Cwik is challenging Moss within the Democratic Party but isn't considered a strong contender at this time.)
Hatch is in good shape -- well financed, a relatively popular incumbent in a strongly Republican state. While criticized nationally for his pro-Reagan stands on the Iran/Contra scandal and the Robert Bork U.S.-SupremeCourt hearings, Hatch's actions in those cases were well received by most Utahns.
The U.S. House races in the 1st and 2nd Districts hold some charm, but the 3rd District looks solid for incumbent Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah.
In the 1st District, Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, faces his old nemesis Gunn McKay. McKay was the 2nd District Democratic representative from 1970 until 1980, when Hansen knocked him off in the Reagan landslide.
McKay challenged Hansen in 1986, but fell 5,000 votes short and lost by 3 percent. Both Hansen and McKay have started earlier this year, raising more money and making more appearances in the district, which includes the west half of the state and Weber and Davis counties.
Hansen says he ran a poor race in 1986, ducking McKay's congressional record. "I'll take the gloves off this time," Hansen vows. The polls show a close race with Hansen up by a couple of points.
Owens will face newcomer Richard Snelgrove in the 2nd District. Owens says he's satisfied and comfortable in the U.S. House. He gave up the 2nd District seat in 1974 to run a losing race for the U.S. Senate. In 1984 Owens lost the governor's race.
Snelgrove was the Salt Lake County GOP chairman until he resigned earlier this year to challenge Owens. Heir to the Snelgrove Ice Cream business, he's raising money and organizing a professional campaign effort. At 33 he admits he's young, "but that's how old Wayne was when he went to Congress in 1972," he says. The polls show Owens up by 30 points.
Nielson says this will likely be his last two years in the U.S. House. He plans retirement and church service after that. Bob Stringham, Utah County Democratic chairman, and Craig Oliver, the 1986 Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, are running against Nielson.
The 3rd District is heavily Republican and Nielson, while not a flashy politician, will be difficult to beat.
The real race of the year, however, is the governor's contest. Here Bangerter has an uphill fight to win another four years in office.
The governor's problems are well documented. He was doing well in job performance polls until December 1986 when he recommended a $200-million tax increase to the Legislature.
Lawmakers gave Bangerter a $160-million tax hike, and he fell like a stone in the polls. A tax protest movement sprung up and quickly took on an anti-Bangerter flavor.
Cook, who was considering running against Bangerter as a Republican until Huntsman jumped in, decided to attack as an independent. His natural base is the tax protest movement, whose supporters have gathered more than 60,000 signatures on initiative petitions. The petitions are a natural voter's list for Cook.
Huntsman's entry, and his exit, were both surprises. A political supporter of Bangerter who gave the governor $5,000 for his re-election effort, Huntsman decided in mid-March that Bangerter couldn't beat Democrat Wilson. He notified the governor that he was going to run, no doubt hoping that Bangerter would drop out. Instead, Bangerter took the challenge as a personal confrontation and vowed to fight until the end. After returning from a 10-day business trip to Asia, Huntsman decided not to challenge Bangerter and pledged anew his support to the governor.
His exit leaves Bangerter breathing easier, and Wilson feeling better. Wilson has, in the polls, always done better against Bangerter than against Huntsman, although he led Huntsman also.
Wilson does have an intra-party challenge. Orem physician David E. Hewett has filed as a Democrat for governor, but he's never been involved in Democratic politics before and Wilson should eliminate him in the Democratic state convention, most experts say.
Cook says he's in for the duration. "I'm not a spoiler, but I'm not a king-maker, either. I can win this race." He's seen now as capable of drawing 10-15 percent of the vote and harming Bangerter more than Wilson in a three-way final election.