A number of Republicans are looking at the 2nd Congressional District and Democrat Wayne Owens in 1990, salivating over the number of Republicans in the Salt Lake County district while choking up over Owens' relatively fine showing the past two elections.
In Republican ranks, the general feeling is that the party didn't nominate its best candidates to run against a man who many perceive as the Democrats' best politician.Salt Lake County Commissioner Tom Shimizu challenged Owens in 1986 in the open seat vacated by former Republican Rep. David Monson. Shimizu beat out two fine Republican contenders - Stan Parrish and Doug Bischoff - to get the GOP nomination.
Richard Snelgrove, a young man whose only political experience was Salt Lake County GOP chairman, took the 1988 Republican nomination by getting in the race early and spending some money. He didn't have significant opposition in the party. However, Snelgrove's campaign never seemed to get off the ground.
Owens beat Shimizu 55 percent to 44 percent. Owens beat Snelgrove 57 percent to 41 percent.
Those are decent victories in any district but impressive victories in the 2nd District.
Poll after poll shows that there are more Republicans in the district than Democrats. The latest Deseret News/KSL-TV poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates shows that 36 percent of those questioned in the district say they're Republicans, 28 percent say they're Democrats, 33 percent say they're independents and the rest either say they belong to some other party or refused to answer the question.
Those results show a drop over recent years in the percentage of people who claim the Republican Party, but in highly partisan election years - which this year is not - the number of declared Republicans traditionally climbs.
Republican leaders drive themselves nuts trying to figure out how to beat Owens. They blast him in and out of Congress. They call him a liberal. They scheme and pour over voting district results.
Former GOP state chairman Craig Moody, a Salt Lake County representative to the Utah House of Representatives, has been studying the district for some time. Moody is seriously considering challenging Owens in 1990.
Moody has already made a trip to Washington, D.C., looking at support, both financial and political. He says he must decide some time this summer if he's in or out of the race.
Moody thinks a 7 percent swing in the vote will give him the election, and he believes there are enough Republicans that can either be turned against Owens or brought out to vote to accomplish that.
But Owens, while appearing vulnerable in the district's demographics, isn't your normal politician.
First, he works very hard. Owens is home at least several weekends a month. He meets often with constituents and has set up some strong alliances among traditional Republican groups - especially small-businessmen.
Second, Owens has gathered endorsements - and money - from groups that usually support Republicans, not Democrats.
Third, Owens can raise a lot of cash if he works at it. He led the nation in 1986 in political action committee money raised by a non-incumbent. That's quite a feat.
Yes, a lot of that PAC cash was from the traditional Democrat source - labor unions. But a lot of it was also from business PACs. Owens brags about his business contributions, saying he is solidly backed by local and national business groups.
Considering that more than 95 percent of the U.S. House incumbents win re-election, Owens is going to be a tough target in 1990. A good GOP candidate is, clearly, the first priority. But even a good candidate may not be enough.