Mike Terry, Deseret News
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

The 2010 elections in Utah were not going to be anything great — a U.S. Senate race with an incumbent heavily favored and three U.S. House seats, also with powerful incumbents.

Then Democratic President Barack Obama decided to ask GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. if he'd like to go to China as his ambassador. And Huntsman said yes.

Now 2010 in Utah is wide open.

Now there is an open governor's race with a one-year incumbent who isn't well known, or well financed, and a history of being in his party's right wing.

There is also U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, facing an intra-party challenger (Tim Bridgewater) who has twice come out of the state Republican convention the leader in a 2nd Congressional District contest. And there is also Attorney General Mark Shurt?leff, who has been hinting at a Senate run for months.

Additionally, there is the real possibility that Congress will give Utah a fourth U.S. House seat for 2010, with new districts for the current three incumbents and a new, Salt Lake County southern-based district where Democrats could actually have a shot.

My, my, how fast things can change in just a few weeks time.

In fact, if the political scenario plays out as described above, 2010 could be the biggest election year in Utah since 1992.

That was the year there was an open U.S. Senate seat here. An open governor's seat. And an open 2nd Congressional District seat.

Mike Leavitt won the governor's race (but finished second coming out of the GOP convention).

Bob Bennett won the U.S. Senate seat (but also finished second coming out of the convention).

And Democrat Karen Shepherd won the 2nd Congressional seat.

Shepherd is long gone. Bennett is seeking a fourth term, after saying he would only serve two terms. And Leavitt resigned his governor's seat in 2003 to join President George W. Bush's administration.

All kinds of names — and candidates — will now come out of the woodwork.

Utah Democrats, after huge re-election wins last year by Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon and Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, and winning control of the Salt Lake County Council, will be energized and feeling their oats in 2010.

But Republicans still rule the roost in statewide politics.

And any believed front-runners today in any race may fall well short in 12 months, when in May 2010 the Republicans and Democrats will hold their state nominating conventions.

Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert — soon to be Gov. Gary Herbert — will likely be in the running. But one only has to look to 2004 to see how well then-Gov. Olene Walker fared.

Walker was Leavitt's lieutenant governor. And she became Utah's first female chief executive when Leavitt was confirmed by Congress as Bush's Environmental Protection Agency administrator. Eventually, Leavitt went on to become head of Health and Human Services, overseeing the largest budget in the federal government.

And, by the way, Leavitt is back in Utah, living in St. George, and nearing 60 could still be available for some public office if he feels like running.

Walker was a known moderate who had close ties to the public and higher education communities, who got fine job approval ratings among all Utahns. Still, it was expected that she wouldn't seek a gubernatorial term herself. But she surprised the pundits by getting in the race.

But even with her popularity among regular citizens, she couldn't make it out of the 2004 GOP convention — where conservative GOP delegates are further to the right than most Utahns.

And other believed heavyweights, such as former U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen, medical equipment millionaire Fred Lampropoulos, and then-Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens also failed to make it out of the convention in the governor's race.

Huntsman easily defeated Democratic gubernatorial candidate Scott Matheson Jr. (older brother of Jim, both sons of the last Democratic Utah governor, the late Scott M. Matheson). But Matheson beat Huntsman in Salt Lake County that year.

Adding to the mix will be the off-cycle governor's race in 2010. Because Huntsman is leaving so early in his second term, Herbert must run again in 2010, the eventual winner serving only two years before he or she must run again in 2012.

That puts next year's governor's race off schedule — and incumbents like Attorney General Mark Shurtleff can seek the higher office without having to give up his current post. That's also the case for Democrats Corroon and Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker — all who can run for governor without risking their current seats.

And there's a few state senators who just won re-election to their four-year seats in 2008 and so can run for governor or U.S. Senate next year without risking their current offices, as well.

Millions of dollars will likely be poured into major races in Utah next year.

And what looked like a ho-hum election season will now be anything but that.

2010 is suddenly a once-in-a-generation opportunity for many current and wanna-be Utah politicians.

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