Voucher defeat may cost Utah Republicans in '08 polls

Published November 14, 2007 1:01 am
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Rarely does the Utah Legislature get its comeuppance as it did when voters overwhelmingly defeated state-funded private school vouchers last week.

But the real reckoning may come a year from now, when those who fought for a plan scorned by nearly two-thirds of the state seek re-election.

The public sentiment expressed in the referendum could hardly be more clear, nor could the disconnect between the voters and their elected representatives.

Not only did the voucher plan fail in every one of Utah's 29 counties, but an analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune shows it failed in nearly every district represented by the most ardent supporters of the voucher movement, in some cases by resounding margins.

Before the first vote was counted, Democrats sought to capitalize on voter resentment, reminding voters in five districts, including House Speaker Greg Curtis', that their legislator backed vouchers and ''doesn't share our values on education."

Republican Rep. Kory Holdaway, a Taylorsville High School teacher, pleaded with his legislative colleagues in February to listen to their constituents and vote down the voucher bill. He wishes some would have gotten the message.

"Quite honestly, I think the Legislature has gone too far to the right and I think the general electorate is not pleased with where we are as a body," he said. "I think there could be some political fallout related to this."

Curtis doubts voters will carry a grudge into the voting booth in 2008.

"We've shown respect for the referendum process. We've indicated we are going to do nothing [more] on vouchers. This is a done issue. It will not be debated next session," he said. In fact, the anti-voucher Utah Education Association "ought to thank me. We've brought some finality to this issue."

Of all the members, Curtis may be the legislator most at risk, says Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

He won re-election last year by a slim 20-vote margin. In the recent referendum, nearly 62 percent of his district voted against vouchers, about on par with the rest of the state; Democrats are targeting him again; and he again expects the UEA to campaign against him.

"I never expected them not to come after me," he said. "They were coming at me pretty hard last election. I don't anticipate anything different this time."

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland said the bid to label legislators with the voucher brand is just part of the effort to drive home the arrogance of the Republican Legislature.

"Every opportunity we get to let voters know that their legislators are not representing their values, we're going to do that, particularly on an issue that is that clear," Holland said.

Others in the Democrats' cross hairs include Rep. Mark Walker, R-Sandy, a voucher supporter who won election by 18 votes and had 65 percent of his constituents vote against vouchers, and Sen. Mike Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, whose district rejected vouchers by a two-to-one margin.

"I hadn't anticipated that they'd begin next year's campaign that early, but basically I see that as posturing and positioning in the 2008 campaign," Waddoups said. Constituents in Rep. Eric Hutchings' district rejected vouchers by a similar margin.

"I'm sure I'll have to explain a bit, but I'm not terribly worried about it," said Hutchings. "If you look at our track record, and especially my track record, I've been supportive [of education] down the line."

The challenges may not come from Democrats alone. Union officials may try to line up public-schools-friendly Republicans to challenge incumbents in safe districts. Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, who sponsored the voucher legislation, said it's always politically risky for legislators to tackle controversial subjects, but he hopes voters will see the bigger picture.

"This will be a significant issue in future elections, no doubt. As an elected official, you hope that people will look at your record as a whole, but people don't always have the time and luxury to do that," said Urquhart, whose district defeated vouchers by just two votes, according to unofficial results.

Recognizing the potential peril posed by a beating on vouchers, legislators took the unprecedented step of creating a political issues committee, the Informed Voter Project, aimed at educating voters on the merits of vouchers.

Bankrolled entirely by Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne and his family, the group sent out more than 213,000 invitations - none to Democrats - to 50 town meetings and paid for 100,000 automated phone calls before the election and sent out a mailer of their own, assailing the notion that the Legislature and governor would pass a law that hurts public schools.

"We wanted our constituents to know we wanted to explain this legislation to them and let them know why we did what we did," said Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper.

It is impossible to discern if those efforts paid off.

A majority of voters embraced vouchers in just two of the 16 districts The Tribune analyzed: those of Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who sponsored the measure in the Senate, and Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem.

Sandstrom's case is intriguing. He won election as an avowed voucher opponent, received $4,700 in campaign contributions from the UEA and the teachers union mobilized volunteers to go door-to-door on his behalf, leaving the union feeling burned when he flipped and supported the measure.

The UEA hasn't decided which legislators it will oppose, said Vik Arnold, political director for the union. It plans to wait until after the upcoming session, giving legislators a chance to make nice with the union.

The anti-voucher coalition, Utahns for Public Schools, also will not disband, and will get involved in party caucus meetings and the 2008 election, Arnold said.

"We have a very large group that includes many new people who have seen the importance of making their voice heard and participating in the political system. And they now know that it makes a difference," he said. "So I'm looking forward to the 2008 political year, because I think we're going to have a lot more participation by grass roots and voters."

Political realities may shelter lawmakers from voucher fallout, said Jowers. The prospect of having popular Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and one-time Utah Olympic boss Mitt Romney at the top of the Republican ticket could give Republican lawmakers a significant boost.

But to Holdaway, the message from the voucher vote is impossible to ignore.

"I think there was a resounding cry by the voters," he said. "And we have got to do a better job as legislators of representing our individual constituents and not so much our political parties."


* GLEN WARCHOL contributed to this report.

Political casualties

from the voucher war?

* Voter opposition to vouchers could mean trouble for some pro-voucher Republican lawmakers seeking re-election next year. A Tribune analysis of unofficial returns in 16 legislative districts held by pro-voucher leaders showed vouchers failed in 14, and barely eked out a majority in two. Utahns statewide rejected vouchers 62 percent to 38 percent.

Democrats already are going after Republican lawmakers who supported vouchers.

Backing school vouchers may affect Republican lawmakers' re-election chances next year. Their Democratic opponents already have started distributing fliers such as this one.



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