If ever there were a year for Republicans to take back the Salt Lake County mayor’s position after eight years of Democratic rule, it would seem to be this one.
But even with Mitt Romney atop the GOP ticket, questions remain about whether businessman Mark Crockett or West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder can muster enough support to defeat Democrat Ben McAdams’ well-financed campaign to succeed retiring County Mayor Peter Corroon.
Winder, of course, has to overcome fallout from his use of the pen name Richard Burwash in writing pro-West Valley City articles for the Deseret News and other publications.
Crockett hasn’t done anything to generate that kind of backlash. But the former county councilman lacks Winder’s family-name recognition and grass-roots Republican support, and has a reputation in political circles as an intelligent-but-aloof conservative technocrat.
When the electability issue was put to the GOP candidates at debates earlier this month, Crockett said he didn’t want to use the Burwash incident against Winder but added that it “clearly still matters to people, it keeps coming up.”
And he predicted that if Winder prevails in Tuesday’s primary, the McAdams campaign will raise the issue repeatedly until the November general election, using it to bash Winder’s integrity and judgment. Winder countered that he has been forthright in admitting his mistake after learning the use of a pseudonym was unacceptable and has never tried to cover it up — the main thing that has gotten politicians from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton into trouble.
“Will I have a scarlet letter I’ll have to wear for the rest of my life? You never know,” he said. “But the people at the [Salt Lake County Republican] convention said they were proud of how I handled it. [On Election Day,] the residents of Salt Lake County will say, ‘We forgive you.’ ”
Winder maintained he already is a man of the people, having secured 67 percent and 76 percent of the vote in his two races for office in West Valley City, “a typically blue-collar, often Democratic area.”
“If I’m the nominee, it makes it hard for the Democrats to win without West Valley City, Magna and Kearns,” he added, pointing out that Crockett represented an east-central valley district on the County Council for one term before losing in 2008 to Democrat Jani Iwamoto.
“My opponent couldn’t win his own council seat. How does he win in the south and west parts of the valley,” Winder said. “I have broad support — more legislators, mayors and city council members than my two opponents combined.”
Crockett bristled at the reference to his loss to Iwamoto, saying he fell victim to Barack Obama’s surging popularity four years ago.
“Republican turnout was down 25 percent. Our turnout should be good this year, and if we stay on message and talk about ideas, [the results should be good] on electability,” he said. “We have better ideas. We have a better vision. If we don’t get off that message, we should win.”
When it comes to ideas, Republicans have two distinctly different choices in Winder and Crockett, said an observer from across the political aisle, prominent Democrat Joe Hatch, who served with Crockett on the County Council and backs McAdams, a state senator from Salt Lake City.
“I enjoyed debating issues with Mark more than any ideological opponent I’ve had. He is an extremist on issues,” Hatch said. “I don’t think there is an ideologically moderate tone to who he is. But unlike a lot of people I see as extreme, he has an intelligence to go along with it.”
Winder, by contrast, “is a much more mainstream Utah conservative, very well representative of west-side Republican values,” the Democrat said. “He’s not as ideologically pure as Mark.”
To University of Utah associate professor of political science Thad Hall, Winder’s appeal could be enhanced this year because moderates did better than extremists at the Republican caucuses and county conventions.
And voters tend to be more mainstream than the individuals active at those party events, he said, adding that “primary voters are more forgiving of personal foibles than they are of what could be viewed as policy extremism.”
Although the progressive group Alliance for a Better Utah chastised Winder for “lying to his constituents and the people of Utah” with his Burwash articles, state Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he does not believe the controversy resonates with most people.
“The reason the story has legs is, no offense, it hit journalists in the sweet spot. … It was offensive to your journalistic standards that are foreign to, or not as important to, the general public,” Weiler said, adding that The Tribune also played it up to jab the Deseret News’ business model that uses “citizen journalists.”
“But someone who’s voting for Mitt Romney and inclined to vote Republican, are they so offended they won’t vote for Mike Winder?” he asked rhetorically. “Clearly, for the people who don’t like Mike Winder, this is an important issue. But to the people on the street, it won’t drive voters to the Democrats.”
Similarly, Weiler said, Crockett’s loss to Iwamoto should not diminish his ability to beat Winder and McAdams.
“It’s not like he got blown away or did something wrong in office,” he said. “I think he’s electable, but I don’t think he’s as media savvy.”
One factor that should not figure into this election is religion. After all, like favorite son Romney, who is expected to draw overwhelming support from LDS voters, all three mayoral candidates are Mormons.
P Republicans will vote Tuesday for either West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder or businessman Mark Crockett to run against Democrat Ben McAdams for Salt Lake County mayor.