Utah Democratic Party leaders have put together what they believe is the best legislative candidate field ever for 1998, adding that rebuilding the party's influence in the 104-member Legislature is critical to making Democrats a voice in the state.

But a new Deseret News poll shows that nearly half of all Utahns plan to vote for a Republican in their legislative race this year.And nearly half say that having the Democrats control one house in the Legislature - either the House or Senate - would make no difference in how the state is run.

A vibrant economy usually means good times for political incumbents. And since Republicans hold two-thirds majorities in the Utah House and Senate, that makes it very hard for the minority Democrats to make headway in legislative elections.

In a new poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, the plight of Democratic legislative candidates is clear: Many Utahns aren't in the mood for change.

Jones found that 50 percent of Utahns say their incumbent House and Senate member have done a good enough job to be re-elected. Thirty-five percent say someone new should get a chance.

Asked if they plan to vote for the Republican or Democrat in their legislative races this year, 45 percent said the Republican, 24 percent said Democrat and 31 percent didn't know or mentioned some other party.

Since most Utahns don't know their current lawmaker by name, party affiliation is important in legislative elections. A survey taken by Jones several years ago for the newspaper showed that 74 percent of Utahns couldn't name their legislator.

To show how times have changed, a 1990 poll by Jones found at least some seeds for change. That year only 32 percent of Utah residents planned to vote for their incumbent lawmaker. Forty-nine percent said it was time to give a new person a chance to serve in the Legislature. The latest poll shows a flip in those numbers - as people are much more satisfied with the work the Legislature is doing today.

Democratic leaders - especially Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell, D-Granite - have been complaining this year that Democrats are ignored by Republicans - that even good ideas put forward by Democrats are brushed aside.

Howell even told the Deseret News that if Democrats don't make significant gains in the House and Senate in the 1998 elections you could see some Democratic legislators resign in protest; could even see some kind of organized Democratic boycott of the 2000 legislative elections.

Other Democrats disagree with those extreme measures. But Democratic Party Chairwoman Meg Holbrook has said several times that the state party's main goal in 1998 is to run and fund good legislative candidates.

And it appears that the Democratic field is a strong one. It includes former 1st Congressional District candidate Greg Sanders and a number of other well-known party and civic leaders.

Democrats hold only 20 seats in the 75-member House, only nine in the 29-member Senate. Even Democratic leaders say there is no hope they can win enough seats in 1998 to reach the majority of 38 in the House, 15 in the Senate. But they want to make some headway.

Democrats have criticized the majority Republicans over how freeways are being rebuilt and transportation funding, complained that the proposed Legacy Highway in Davis County isn't needed and will damage the Great Salt Lake's wetlands and that Republicans erred in not removing the sales tax from food during the huge state revenue surplus years of the mid-1990s.

But Jones found that many Utahns don't think the state would be any better off if Democrats controlled one of the houses in the Legislature.

Only 30 percent said the state would be better off if Democrats had some real power in the Legislature. Forty-four percent said it would make no difference if Democrats controlled one of the state houses and 18 percent said the state would be worse off with Democrats in control.

Oddly enough, 29 percent of the Democrats polled by Jones said it would make no difference if their own party controlled one of the legislative houses.

After reviewing the poll results, Howell said Friday that "competition builds better products. And I can assure all Utahns that they'd be better served if we had balance in state government. We wouldn't be the second highest taxed citizens in the nation, we'd listen to (citizens') concerns on concealed weapons in churches and schools and we'd end up with better overall legislation."



Deseret News poll

In general, do you believe your state House member and state senator have done a good job and deserve to be re-elected, or do you think it is time to let someone new serve in the Legislature?

Re-elect incumbent 50%

Give a new person a chance 35%

Don't know 29%

Do you plan to vote for a Democrat or a Republican this year in your state legislative races?

Democrat 24%

Republican 45%

Another party 2%

Don't know 29%

Governor Mike Levitt is a Republican and Republican legislators hold two-thirds majorities in both the Utah House and Senate. Democrats say that Utah's one-party rule is not good for the state.

If the Democrats controlled one house in the Legislature, either the House or the Senate, do you believe the state would be better off, worse off, or would it make no difference?

Better off 30%

No difference 44%

Worse off 18%

Don't know 8%

This poll of 926 Utah residents was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates Apr. 6-11, 1998. It has a margin of error of +/-3.1 percent. Dan Jones & Associates is an independent polling firm whose clients include other organizations and sometimes political parties and candidates. Among his clients are Robert Bennett, Merrill Cook and the Utah Republican Party.

Copyright 1998 Deseret News.