Many Utahns are relishing the fun of the presidential race the daily ups and downs of Obama/Palin (oops, Obama/McCain). But Utah political insiders are watching with keen interest some hotly contested legislative races that will impact state government far beyond the individual district. This week we examine three races that are expected to be very close:
Walker vs. Morgan (Senate District 8, Cottonwood Heights, Sandy, Salt Lake County). When the moderate incumbent Republican Carlene Walker was first elected, many suggested she would be the body's first female president. Walker has a dignified presence well-suited for the Senate. She achieved some national prominence by passing legislation to assist consumers with identity theft, which is a model for many states. She is being challenged by Karen Morgan, incumbent representative of House District 42. For years, Morgan has garnered recognition as a moderate and effective Democrat, respected on both sides of the aisle. A number of literacy and education programs were sponsored and passed only through her tenacity and articulate manner.
Walker and Morgan are both smart, experienced campaigners who are working hard and raising a lot of money. In addition to the quality of the candidates, this contest is high on the radar screen for other reasons. The demographics of the East Bench have been evolving for decades: today, the profile of a successful candidate along the corridor is a woman, from either party, with strong credentials in education and/or understanding of business.
The district's election will impact the Senate leadership in both Republican and Democratic caucuses. Gargantuan battles are brewing on Capitol Hill among a number of senators for president, majority leader and minority leader. These internal races are so tight, that the gain or loss of a senator in the caucus will resonate.
Curtis vs. Seegmiller (House District 49, Sandy). This is a big rivalry grudge match with all the emotion of a Utah-BYU championship football game. A win here will make or break the election season. Democrats get a huge morale boost if they knock off Republican Greg Curtis, the powerful speaker of the House (they came within 22 votes in 2006). Further, a Democratic win would motivate future hungry challengers to try to emulate giant-killer Jay Seegmiller and go after Republican incumbents in 2010. So Republicans are fully engaged in helping Curtis avoid what would be an enormous defeat.
Curtis has certainly delivered in a big way for his district. He has immense clout and is the consummate dealmaker, but he is also a polarizing political figure who isn't afraid to mix it up and collect enemies. If Curtis were from New Jersey or Chicago, he would be a popular personality for his tough but effective style. In passive-aggressive Utah, his toughness does not always wear well. His amazing ability to endure political intrigue and bad publicity makes him both vulnerable and formidable.
Seegmiller is the picture of tenacity in his third attempt to unseat Curtis. He has constructed a strong coalition of educators, labor and moderate Republicans. He has focused on the well-proven, but time-consuming tactics of retail politics, including extensive door-to-door campaigning. Both candidates are working extremely hard and are running strong campaigns. Should Curtis lose, the comfortable situation deteriorates and it will be a free-for-all among House Republicans for leadership positions.
Christensen vs. Robles (Senate District 1, northwest Salt Lake City and parts of West Valley City). The Utah GOP is hoping to establish a rare beachhead in Salt Lake City. A respected and moderate city council member, Carlton Christensen, is well-liked in the area. (His family has lived there for generations.) All his elections to the nonpartisan council were by comfortable margins.
Although candidates with Republican ties occasionally win nonpartisan council elections, the city remains a Democrat stronghold in general election years. Democrat Luz Robles is working this angle in her grassroots campaign. She is well-liked and brings deep experience in a variety of community organizations that are providing active support.
District 1 voters will also impact Senate leadership races as the majority and minority leadership contenders are hoping for a vote from the district. Therefore, leadership candidates in both parties have focused resources and attention on Christensen and Robles.Christensen's best bet is the hard-to-replicate Matheson formula of advancing crossover balloting, while Robles pushes Democratic voter turnout in a traditionally low-turnout district, especially with no well-funded Utah Democratic federal candidate on the district ballot (although Obama could generate some excitement).
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. E-mail: email@example.com.