Tom Smart, Deseret News
Voters cast their vote in early voting at the Salt Lake County Complex Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)
We ought to do Republican bracketology because there are so many candidates. —Thomas Wright, Utah GOP chairman

For the complete list of candidate filings for the 2012 election, click here.

SALT LAKE CITY — March Madness isn't just for the basketball court. Rep. Jim Matheson's departure from the 2nd Congressional District created a bit of madness in Utah's political arena as well.

Seventeen opportunistic contenders — 11 Republicans, three Democrats, one Constitutionalist, two independents — officially declared candidacies for the Democratic congressman's seat before Thursday's filing deadline.

In 2010, there were 18 total candidates in the state's three congressional districts. This year there are 36, mostly Republicans, in what are now four districts.

"We ought to do Republican bracketology because there are so many candidates," said Thomas Wright, Utah GOP chairman.

Wright, though, doesn't want any part in setting odds or filling out a bracket sheet for the political office pool. "I won't handicap the candidates," he said. "I have to stay neutral as you know."

Says Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, "We're happy to see all those Republicans go after each other."

Dabakis and Wright both said they're excited about the slate of candidates their parties have assembled. And thanks to resurgent participation in neighborhood caucuses this week, Utahns appear much more engaged in the election process. Utah consistently has some of the lowest voter turnout in the nation.

"We're going to have some good battles this year," Dabakis said.

The 2nd and 4th Congressional seats will be among the most hotly contested.

Of course, the 2nd District isn't the same one Matheson has held since 2002. State lawmakers redrew the congressional boundaries last fall and added a fourth district per the 2010 Census. Contending the Republican-controlled Legislature essentially boxed him out, Matheson decided to take a shot in the new 4th District.

"It's piqued a lot of people's interest," said Mark Thomas, Utah elections director, adding the presidential and gubernatorial races also play into 2012 being a big year. In all, he estimates candidates from State School Board to president number 475.

The 4th District, too, is chock full of challengers gunning for Matheson, who sees himself as the front-runner.

Five Republicans, one Libertarian and even a candidate from Rocky Anderson's new Utah Justice Party joined the fray. Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, and former state Reps. Stephen Sandstrom and Carl Wimmer are the leading contenders for the GOP nomination.

The U.S. Senate race also is drawing a lot of challengers — 15 in all — looking to dump six-term GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch. Among the nine Republicans, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist and state Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, have the highest name recognition.

Even the Democrats have more than one Senate candidate to choose from with XMission founder Pete Ashdown and former Utah Senate minority leader Scott Howell now in the race.

Gov. Gary Herbert, too, has company in his party, including David Kirkham, Morgan Philpot, and state Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, all of whom are trying to appeal to the far right. Retired Maj. Gen. Peter Cooke will be a formidable Democratic opponent.

Wright said incumbents can't take anything for granted this year. And delegates at state conventions will have their work cut for them trying to winnow the long lists of candidates to a single nominee or two candidates for a primary election.

"It's going to be totally exciting to have these candidates traversing the state, going to county conventions, visiting people in their homes, making phone calls. That's what it's all about," he said. "If you can't connect with delegates in Utah, you're not going to have very much success."

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