What happened to U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon?

Was he a victim of his own quirky nature?

Or did he honestly fail at being a congressman, pushing the wrong issues, not being a strong-enough conservative?

When 3rd Congressional District GOP voters kicked Cannon out of office Tuesday, it was only the second time in 50 years that an incumbent Utah Republican was beaten in a primary.

Former Rep. Merrill Cook was ousted by GOP primary voters in 2000.

Maybe half a dozen Utah congressmen have been defeated in general elections over those decades. And a few more could read the political writing on the wall and just retired.

But kicked out of office by your own party's voters — doesn't happen much here.

In Cannon's case, it may have been just a matter of timing. His personal oddities, soft political underpinnings, a strong alternative.

Cannon never seemed a good fit as a politician. Cannon had a temper that flared every now and then. But he's also a kindhearted man who seemed to get himself into strange situations — like when he lent money to a couple of fellows with whom he actually got into a road-rage fistfight.

He also got himself into lawsuits that others might have avoided.

Certainly other Republicans saw not only the opportunity to challenge Cannon within his party, sometimes they lined up to do so.

In the seven races Cannon has run, including his 1996 unseating of Democratic 3rd District Rep. Bill Orton, Cannon had five GOP primary fights.

It got to be normal for him to have to battle in the state GOP convention and then pay for a primary election before he finally won another two years.

And maybe that's what happened this time — he saw Jason Chaffetz as just another disgruntled Republican to put up with. Another state GOP convention to survive. And then a primary where Cannon's bigger campaign funds and name recognition would carry him through.

But Chaffetz wasn't just another challenger.

Chaffetz worked the delegates for 18 months. He didn't only wine and dine them at a free lunch or dinner. He got to know them, turned a number into strong Chaffetz supporters.

Chaffetz didn't have the large, personal checking account where he would just write campaign checks. So he ran an extra-cheap race. Chaffetz didn't have a campaign headquarters. He had no paid staff. He just worked like a plow horse, head down, straight ahead, his enthusiasm rubbing off on his campaign volunteers.

Cannon is not lazy. He would rather spend time in the philosophical give-and-take of lawmaking than at the often-demeaning task of asking people for campaign funds and doggedly working a grass-roots campaign.

Even after Chaffetz nearly eliminated Cannon in the convention, Cannon still spent around two weeks of the six-week primary back in Washington, D.C., doing congressional work.

A number of GOP officeholders in Utah are now asking themselves if Cannon's defeat is a one-time election, spawned by an inattentive incumbent challenged by a fresh-faced, driven young man.

Or is there a real movement afoot, disgruntled Republicans looking for the next big-name incumbent to take down?

GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., seems safe in his re-election this year — unchallenged within his own party and carrying huge job-approval ratings.

Likewise, 1st District Republican Rep. Rob Bishop seems OK in his northern Utah district.

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, faces another rich-guy Republican, ready to spend his own money trying to unseat the conservative Democrat. But Matheson's victories have only increased in size in recent years. And Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, also a Democrat, is poised to do well in the county, as well.

There is real anger among many Utah voters. A worsening economy can't help incumbents.

But the perfect political storm that washed Cannon from office may have moved away from Utah now, leaving incumbents to stand in the sunshine this November.


Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com.