Democrats had only modest election goals in the Utah Senate: Pick up two, maybe three seats.
And when you're down 21-8 to the Republicans, you need modest goals.Unfortunately, after the election dust had settled, Democrats found themselves in a deeper hole. Republicans increased their advantage, picking up a Senate seat from troubled Sen. Darrell Renstrom, D-North Ogden, who was charged with sex abuse earlier this year. He was acquitted, but the scandal haunted his bid for re-election.
Democrats picked up no new seats.
Democrats suspected for weeks they might lose the Renstrom seat. Not only was Renstrom running against a popular Republican county commissioner, but Renstrom's arrest on sex charges dogged his campaign even after he was acquitted.
"I think there has been a definite decision in a democratic way," said Boyd Storey, who defeated Renstrom 60 percent to 40 percent. "The publicity surrounding the charges undoubtedly had some effect. But at this point we're just happy we won."
Renstrom refused to comment on his defeat. "I don't owe the Deseret News anything," he responded angrily.
Storey, a Weber County Republican who has served four terms on the County Commission, said the tax initiatives, while defeated, sent a message to lawmakers - a message he intends to listen to.
"I think although they lost, they won in a way," Storey said.
Democrats had hoped to pick up two seats belonging to Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, the powerful co-chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Glade Nielsen, R-Roy.
Democrats had also held out hope that former West Jordan Mayor Dennis Randall could unseat Sen. Stephen Rees. Early polls indicated Rees was trailing, but Rees defended his seat by tallying 54 percent of the vote in a district that also re-elected Rep. Kelly Atkinson, D-West Jordan.
"I guess it just shows that people are not voting a straight party ticket, either Republican or Democrat. It looks like maybe they're trying to look at the candidate," Rees said. "I did some surveys of my own, and the message I got from those surveys is they are supportive of education and want good government."
Democratic Chairman Randy Horiuchi had boldly predicted that Democratic challenger Chris Coray would upset Hillyard as part of a Democratic sweep in Cache County. But when the votes were tallied, Hillyard had garnered almost 62 percent of the vote, compared to 38 percent for Coray.
Hillyard, who won almost every precinct, losing only by four votes in one, said the message of no more taxes was also heard in Logan.
In one of the year's most expensive races, incumbent Nielsen staved off a challenge by Democrat Roger Rawson, 54 percent to 46 percent. Nielsen spent more than $25,000 defending his seat, party officials said.
"We did as well as we ever thought we could with the makeup of our district," said Nielsen, whose district is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. "This is the goal we set earlier this year, an 8-point spread in the results."
Nielsen, who was appointed to the Senate by Gov. Norm Bangerter, said lawmakers got the word from voters concerning taxes. The three initiatives were defeated by a narrower margin in Weber County than in the rest of Utah.
In addition to the Renstrom seat, Republicans had hoped San Juan County Commissioner Calvin Black could defeat long-time Sen. Omar Bunnell, D-Price. But Bunnell, drawing on a 70 percent vote from Carbon County, turned back the challenge in a close election.
The strangely drawn district includes heavily Democratic Carbon and Emery counties, as well as the less populated Republican Grande and San Juan counties - all of which favors a Democrat incumbent.
"Cal spent a lot more money and worked a lot harder than I did," said Bunnell, "and he still lost. As long as Carbon County votes Democrat, this seat will stay Democrat."
Still, the race was closer than Bunnell expected, and Black says a better showing in Emery County could have turned it around for the Republican. "It would be awfully tough, but it could be pulled off," he said.
"But Carbon County Democrats will never vote for a Republican from San Juan County," said Bunnell.