With Republican Rep. Chris Cannon already beaten in his 3rd Congressional District re-election bid, do Utah Democrats really have a shot at recapturing this GOP fortress?
Ask Jason Chaffetz, the Republican who defeated Cannon in last month's primary, and he laughs. Chaffetz says he will be the next 3rd District U.S. House member. "We'll keep on doing what we've been doing working hard, working at the grassroots level. And we'll win."
Ask Bennion Spencer, the Democrat in the race, and he believes he starts the general election campaign as maybe a 20-percentage point underdog but still with a shot at getting the 3rd District back in Democratic hands, where it was from 1990 to 1996.
"The whole dynamic has changed" with Cannon's defeat, Spencer said.
A measure of the viability of a campaign is how much money it raises. New filings show Chaffetz and Spencer are essentially now starting from scratch and are not far apart in money, a stark contrast to the 2nd District race between Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and GOP nominee Bill Dew.
Spencer's new filing with the Federal Election Commission shows he has only raised $10,785, has loaned his campaign $4,500 and has $2,719 in cash.
Chaffetz has raised $208,359 and spent $190,450, leaving him with $17,908 in cash not that much, but about $15,000 more than Spencer.
Still, that is tighter than in the 2nd District. Matheson has amassed $1.33 million in cash on hand, compared to $213,468 for Dew. That is more than a $1.1 million difference.
(Also, Dew, a homebuilder, has provided out of his own pocket 86 percent of all money he has raised. He has loaned his campaign $349,000 so far, including $99,000 in the last quarter.)
Both Chaffetz and Spencer say they now have a whole new race.
"This is now an open seat," said Spencer, a TV producer and writer. "With 98 percent of House incumbents winning re-election, we don't have an incumbent now. It's all different."
"I'm the Republican (Party) nominee," countered Chaffetz. Fundraising and his reception among Republicans in Washington, D.C., "has changed it is completely different." Chaffetz just returned from a D.C. fundraising/get-to-know-you trip. "We've raised tens of thousands of dollars that won't be reflected in this latest report because of the reporting deadlines," Chaffetz said.
"It is still a very Republican district," says Kelly Patterson, a Brigham Young University political science professor. "But the dynamic has changed. It is a different animal. Jason does not have the advantages of an incumbent."
He doesn't have name recognition among voters that an incumbent would, Patterson said. And an open seat often sees two political newcomers who don't have the grasp of issues or the polished speaking ability to articulate solutions to complicated national problems, Patterson added.
Without a big name on the ballot, the national debate and context of a presidential election take on more importance inside a U.S. House race, said Patterson.
But Chaffetz is going after campaign cash like an incumbent. Local Utah favorite Mitt Romney, who won 90 percent of Utah's GOP presidential primary vote in February and raised nearly $6 million here, will be holding a fundraiser for Chaffetz, the candidate said. Yet to be determined is whether that will be in Utah or back on the East Coast.
Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, all R-Utah, will soon host a D.C. fundraiser, Chaffetz said. The three had endorsed Cannon before Chaffetz thumped him 60 percent to 40 percent in the June 24 GOP primary.
A number of doors have opened for Chaffetz, he said. In his recent trip to D.C., he spoke with the GOP minority leader in the House, with the House Republicans' campaign chairman and with several groups that historically have supported the GOP candidate in Utah's 3rd District.
"They were fascinated that I (unseated Cannon) with no paid campaign staff, no campaign headquarters, with a grassroots fundraising and organizational effort. In fact, they were amazed I could do all that with so little money," Chaffetz said. "I have no campaign debt. And I will not go into debt in the general election."
Chaffetz may be the favorite simply because he is a Republican, an ID that helps in the district's final election, said Patterson, who heads a group that studies congressional elections each year. "But there was such low voter turnout in the primary, and the general election is a completely different ball game. Grassroots organization helps. But the candidates now have to reach maybe 200,000 voters or more and you need money and a good staff to do that," Patterson said.
Chaffetz declined to say how much money he plans on raising until November. Pushed, he said he doesn't think his overall campaign spending this year will top $400,000. He said he still won't have any paid campaign staff.
Spencer said it will take "between $200,000 and $300,000 to get our message of true change out to the voters." But with that amount, he believes he will be competitive. "I'm walking neighborhoods, and you can't take previous election results into account. There is a real, true, feeling for change out there, especially in Utah County. I'm asking voters to vote for true change, vote for the Democrat."
Cannon unseated conservative Democratic Rep. Bill Orton in 1996 by getting 51 percent of the vote. But since then, Cannon's general election victories have been impressive. Even though there are more voters in the district's Salt Lake County west side than there are in Utah County, the district has still voted conservative.
"We have a number of fundraising events in August. We're excited," Spencer said.
But he still starts the general election behind. In fact, Constitution Party 3rd District candidate Jim Noorlander has about as much campaign cash as Spencer.
Noorlander's FEC report shows he raised $4,612, has no debts and $598 in cash.
Spencer's report shows he has a campaign loan debt of $4,500 to himself and has $2,719 in cash. And besides his own $4,500, only $2,000 raised by Spencer came in cash the rest were in-kind donations, like computer work. Spencer said since the June 30 reporting deadline, he's raised several thousand dollars more and that his fundraising is picking up.
Meanwhile, lame-duck Rep. Cannon dug himself into a financial hole when he lost his race. His new report shows he owes vendors about $190,000 in unpaid bills but he has only $66,780 in cash on hand. Raising money to make up the difference could be difficult as a defeated congressman.
Historically, the 3rd Congressional District has voted Republican. Percentage of the vote going to Republican Chris Cannon:
*No Democrat filed against him
**Defeated incumbent Democrat
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