Last week's Republican state convention was a shocker to most Utah politicos. Jason Chaffetz, former campaign manager and chief of staff to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., almost won the nomination for the 3rd Congressional District outright to avoid a primary (falling short of 60 percent by a few votes) Most expected a David Leavitt vs. Chris Cannon primary. This whopper of an upset is driving many questions:
Was the Chaffetz victory a last-minute fluke or did he have some hidden momentum?
Webb: Chaffetz clearly gave the best convention presentation. The delegates wanted red meat and he gave it to them with a fiery speech focused on the specifics of how he'll go back to Washington and do battle with the godless Democrats. But he also has been working for two years with the delegates and had more strength entering the convention than anyone expected. Had Chaffetz not infuriated Leavitt with his hard-ball tactics, causing Leavitt to shift his support to Cannon, Chaffetz would be the nominee today. He also would probably be the nominee had more people stuck around to vote in the final round. Chaffetz upset a lot of people, especially the GOP establishment, but you have to give him credit for effectiveness with the delegates. It wasn't a fluke.
Pignanelli: "A political convention is just not a place where you come away with any trace of faith in human nature" journalist Murray Kempton. Until last week, most politicos believed that Chaffetz's hard work was only raising doubts about the incumbent Cannon to the benefit of Leavitt. But Chaffetz took advantage of the storm he created. He threw juicy cow legs for the right-wing piranhas to savor and chew. Claiming global warming was a farce and targeting illegal immigration, he captured the momentum. Fun for convention politics, these issues are a disaster for the GOP in the long term. Thus it is no wonder Sen. John McCain and Gov. Huntsman are polar opposites from Chaffetz and many state delegates on these matters. The delegate and convention process is an artifact from the political Paleozoic era that must be eliminated.
Will Chaffetz's status as a former Democrat (and involvement with the Dukakis presidential campaign), hurt or help?
Webb: Utah Republicans like converts, so Chaffetz's former life is not a problem. His bigger problems are that he doesn't live in the 3rd District, he's relatively young and brash and sometimes comes across as a hotshot with a big ego. He alienated a lot of legislators and others when he was Huntsman's chief of staff. Besides showing he's tough on Democrats, he needs to demonstrate a little humility, show he's a good guy and not a loose cannon (pun intended).
Pignanelli: "Conversion" has several unique meanings in Utah, and Chaffetz offers both (convert to the LDS faith and Republican Party). Utahns are much more accepting of religious conversion than the political change. Representative Hugh Rush was defeated in 1990 after changing to the GOP. The well-respected Rich McKewon, chief of staff to Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, could not leverage his conversion to a Republican from preventing a primary for his boss. However, former Gov. Norm Bangerter chief of staff Bud Skruggs (fellow Young Democrat officer with me in the late '70s) and Eric Hutchings, current legislator who flipped from Democrat to Republican) flourished. Politicos are watching Dave Hogue, former Republican legislator now Democrat, who is challenging Rep. Carl Wimmer. Because Chaffetz has already established credentials for managing the Huntsman campaign and administration, his enlightened involvement with Democratic activities should not be a hindrance.
Is Chaffetz just another flash in the pan or is Cannon toast this time?
Webb: Cannon enjoys the support of the Republican establishment. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett will give Cannon a lot of help. Huntsman will stay out of the race. Chaffetz will forge ahead mostly on his own, without much name identification. Cannon will have an advantage in fundraising. On paper, Cannon should win. But Cannon has never been a strong campaigner. His polling numbers aren't good. He hasn't built a political support machine at the grassroots level and doesn't seem to like fundraising. Chaffetz is more articulate and "on message" than Cannon and will do well in debates. If Chaffetz is adequately financed, can avoid coming across as too negative and condescending, this will be a real race. As predicted, this has been Cannon's toughest re-election challenge to date, and it may be a squeaker.Pignanelli: History demonstrates Cannon performs miserably at conventions but so far is unbeatable in the primary. Granted, Cannon's prior opponents self-destructed leading to the primary. Yet, the congressman is usually supercharged when campaigning to a broader audience. Apparently, there was much hostility toward the congressman at the convention, and he will need to contain this emotion. Chaffetz may have bred anger when working for Huntsman, he was highly regarded in some circles for making tough decisions. Well-funded and well-known, Cannon is likely to prevail.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: [email protected]. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a Utah state tax commissioner. E-mail: [email protected].