If you like making a gentleman's bet, you'd best stay away from any wagers on which Utah legislative seats change political parties this year.

In many of the closer contests, even the experts - the men and women in the state Republican and Democratic parties - won't say who is going to win.Democrats are a minority in the 104-member Legislature - and as in other years they see 1998 as a chance to gain.

Even though their party is the 800-pound gorilla on Capitol Hill, some GOP leaders think they might gain a seat or two.

But party leaders don't make many predictions about specific races they hope to capture from the other party.

After party conventions in the spring and primaries in June, 211 candidates remain for the 75 House and 15 Senate seats up this year.

Most are Republicans or Democrats. But the Independent American Party fields 19 legislative candidates; Libertarians, 14; and other parties, 18.

Minor-party candidates may be hopeful, but since statehood Utahns have only sent a handful of independents or third-party candidates to the Legislature, none since 1956.

Utah Democratic chairwoman Meg Holbrook and executive director Todd Taylor refuse to make many specific predictions.

"We'll gain some seats. We'll have a good year," said Holbrook, who a year ago upon winning the chairmanship said she'd concentrate on legislative races in 1998.

State Republican Party chairman Rob Bishop downplays the Republicans' chances of major gains.

"Historically, the majority party loses legislative seats in a nonpresidential year - like 1998," he said.

There will be low voter turnout this November, he predicts. "And the people not voting will be Republicans." Sen. Bob Bennett's race against Democrat Scott Leckman is a sleeper; Rep. Jim Hansen should do well in the 1st District, and 3rd District Congressman Chris Cannon doesn't even have a Democratic opponent, he notes.

Rep. Merrill Cook's defense of his seat against Democrat Lily Eskelsen may provide some sparks in Salt Lake County's 2nd Congressional District - both Republicans and Democrats say.

That leads Bishop to predict a "fluid" situation in Salt Lake County legislative races with Republicans and Democrats swapping some seats but overall numbers not changing much.

Oddly enough, both GOP and Democratic leaders predict Democratic breakthroughs in Utah County, where Republicans now hold all 12 House seats.

GOP leaders think they may lose one or two House seats in the conservative county. Democrats say they could pick up three.

Says GOP executive director Spencer Stokes: "I have to say here, we could lose two. Now, you have to remember that the Democrats used to hold one or two or three House seats in the county. It's only in recent years that we had all of them.

"And if we do lose two House seats, boy, will those Democrats crow. But it really won't mean much - an off-year, we had some problems that shouldn't have happened" (Rep. Glenn Way's bankruptcy and Rep. Brent Haymond not campaigning before the Utah County GOP convention, where he was beaten by Matthew Throckmorton, a former Independent American Party candidate).

"We will win (retiring Republican Chris Fox-Finlinson's) Lehi seat, perhaps a couple more, and we will crow," Holbrook said.

Bishop says low voter turnout, the off-year election and Republicans having to defend so many seats could mean the GOP losing 10 House seats - going from 55 seats to 45 in the 75-member House.

"But I don't think that will happen. If we stay even - keep 55 seats - that's a victory for us. If we gain one or two seats, that is very extraordinary," says the former House speaker.

In the Senate, Republicans are making one bold prediction: They will win in Tooele County, a Democratic stronghold that hasn't sent a Republican to the upper body in decades.

Bishop and Stokes also think they can knock out the only woman currently in the Senate - Sen. Millie Peterson, D-West Valley City. Peterson has held on in close elections before, and Holbrook and Taylor says she'll survive again.

Democrats want to hold every one of their incumbents' seats. In the past 20 years there have been a lot fewer Democrats than Republicans making laws and tinkering with your taxes.

1978 was the last year Democrats held a majority in either the House or the Senate. And 20 years is a long drought.

Holbrook and Taylor are realistic. Both say there's no way Democrats can win control of either the House or Senate this election.

But they believe minority Democrats will increase their numbers in both bodies. Democrats hold only 20 seats in the House, nine in the Senate.

Those aren't the lowest numbers during those 20 years.

In 1983 and 1984 there were only five Democratic senators - so few that there weren't enough Democrats to have even one member on several joint budget committees.

And in 1985-86 there were only 14 House Democrats.

Still, 20 House members is well below the recent high of 31 in 1991-92, which was only seven away from the majority of 38 and enough to give Democrats in 1992 hope of taking control of the House. In 1993-94 Democrats held 11 Senate seats.

But then Democrats fell back. Republicans say Democrats became victims of their special-interest-group domination. Democrats say they allowed Republicans to unfairly label them.

Whatever the case, 1998 will be a legislative battle year in Utah.

Holbrook has said for a year that Democrats will place party resources in legislative races. They recruited good candidates - a number who've run for higher office before - and when needed, she says, the money will be there to run financially competitive races.

Stokes says Republicans reconcentrate their efforts on legislative races this year - partly because Bennett, Hansen and Cannon are safe and Cook will handle his own re-election, and partly in response to the Democrats' legislative push.

"The state (GOP) will be active, very active, in two specific races," says Stokes.

Republicans want to end the political career of Rep. Patrice Arent, D-South Cottonwood, now, before the articulate attorney and stay-at-home mom decides to run for attorney general or 2nd Congressional District.

Cut off the snake's head before it gets bigger, jokes Stokes.

And Republicans want to hold on to the swing district of Sen. Nathan Tanner, R-South Ogden, held previously by a Democrat.

Democrats will look at districts where incumbent Republicans didn't run or incumbents have gotten into trouble or are considered "far right" of mainstream Utah voters: Rep. Keele Johnson's southeastern Utah seat, Way's south Utah County district and Sen. Howard Stephenson's Draper/Highland seat.



Who's targeted?

By Republicans:

Rep. Patrice Arent

Sen. Millie Peterson

Rep. Perry Buckner

Rep. Gene Davis (Senate candidate)

By Democrats:

Rep. Glenn Way

Sen. H. Stephenson

Rep. Nora Stephens

Sen. Nathan Tanner

Current partisan makeup

.. Republican Democrat

House* 55 20

Senate 20 9

Up for election this year 10 5

Two years remaining in term 10 4

*All seats have election this year


1998 elections

Races Total Senate House

Candidates 211 39 172

Republican 88 15 73

Democrat 72 14 58

Independent American 19 1 18

Libertarian 14 5 9

Other 18 4 14

Incumbents running 71 8 63

Republican 56 6 48

Democrat 17 2 15

House members running for Senate 3

Republican 2

Democrat 1