In one of every 11 races for the Utah Legislature this year, the election is over before it begins.
As the candidate-filing period closed for this year’s 89 legislative races, eight incumbents — two Democrats and six Republicans — emerged with no challengers.
Two more House races are nearly over, with Republican incumbents facing challengers only from long-shot third parties.
And in three other contests, Republicans are sure to win — as only Republicans are running.
The lack of interparty competition in so many races is concerning to some observers at the same time it provides a boost to several lawmakers who now don’t have to lift a finger to keep their seats, although they say they’ll campaign anyway to stay in touch with constituents.
Jim Dabakis, who resigned as Utah Democratic Party chairman on Monday, acknowledges that his party is “way down from where we were in 2012” in attracting candidates. Democrats did not field candidates in 12 of the 89 legislative races this year (all 75 House seats are up for election, as are about half the 29 state Senate seats).
‘Unhealthy’ • “We really would like a candidate to run in every race because it is unseemly for democracy to have candidates with no opposition, no exchange of ideas. It’s unhealthy,” Dabakis said.
But he said the party also is faced with a balancing act: targeting races where it has a chance, and not wasting money and energy where it does not. He blames redistricting by the GOP-controlled Legislature for creating safe districts for both parties, leaving just a few swing districts to attract challengers with a competitive chance.
“This is caused by gerrymandering. Those districts are created by legislators who will run in them,” Dabakis said. “You have legislators who are picking their districts rather than people who are picking their representatives,” and he argues the system should be turned over to an independent commission.
Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, is one of the incumbents who is unopposed. “It never hurts to be a Republican in Cache County,” he jokes, but he still disagrees with Dabakis’s putting the blame on Republican redistricting.
“I really don’t buy the idea that there was a huge nefarious scheme to make a tremendous advantage for Republicans,” he said. “It would be naïve to say that politics had nothing to do with it … But I saw their work, I saw the process, I saw their deliberation and they did the very best they could” to be fair.
He says Utah’s demographics — with Republicans having huge majorities in many places — makes it hard not to create numerous safe seats.
Surprised • Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, agrees to a point. One of two Democrats running unopposed, King acknowledged that “I was surprised, but I can’t tell you I was distressed” at learning that he has no challenger.
He believes that redistricting did create many safe seats throughout the state. But, he adds, “I think there are some seats that would be safe no matter what you did with redistricting in both Salt Lake County for Democrats and in Utah County, for example, for Republicans.”
Only two of the unopposed legislators — Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab — say they have ever experienced such a free pass to re-election.
“I still have to campaign. Much of my district is new after reapportionment, and I have a lot of people who don’t know who I am,” Davis said. “The great thing about campaigns is it puts you in touch with the people.”
Noel said even without an opponent, “It’s still the same job” to get elected. “I will be going to seven county conventions and meeting delegates throughout my district” and attending meeting of city councils and school districts throughout his large rural district.
Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, also promised to hit the campaign trail although he’s unopposed.
“I will still be reaching out to delegates to let them know who I am.”
Likewise, Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, said, “I still plan to run a campaign,” adding that building trust with voters may have allowed him to avoid opposition.
Others running unchallenged are Reps. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, and Ed Redd, R-Logan.
Reps. Jon Cox, R-Ephraim, and David Lifferth, R-Eagle Mountain, have only third-party opponents.
Republicans also are assured victory in Senate District 28 (now held by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City), House District 63 (held by Rep. Dean Sanpei, R-Provo) and House District 55 (where Rep. John Mathis, R-Vernal, is retiring). While multiple Republicans are running in each district, they face no opposition from other parties.
Legislators running unopposed
• Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City.
• Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City.
• Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan.
• Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan.
• Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville.
• Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem.
• Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton.
• Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab.