The election for Utah's fourth U.S. House seat is still nearly two years away, but the jockeying started well in advance of Tuesday's expected announcement that the state will get its long-anticipated representative.
"I think the state Legislature is full of people who want to be a member of Congress," said Quin Monson, associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Politics at Brigham Young University.
In the past, whenever a seat is open due to retirement or a new seat is created, there are always plenty of people lining up for a shot, particularly on the Republican side, he said. "I do expect it will be a crowded field."
The two would-be candidates who are most frequently thought to have congressional ambitions are outgoing House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, and Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman.
"It's absolutely something that, at this point, I have been considering and I'm looking at," Wimmer said Monday. "I had not done so until fairly recently, actually, when many, many, many leaders throughout the state, tea party leaders, 9/12 leaders throughout the state â¦ put pressure on me to consider it. "
Clark said he is "tickled" that Utah will be getting its fourth seat, but he is "a long ways from any decision."
Former state Rep. Morgan Philpot, who lost to Rep. Jim Matheson by 4.5 percent in last month's election, said voters could see him again.
"I think there's a very good chance you'll see me back in 2012. We had a great team and an amazing grassroots organization and I think we'll put it to work again," he said. Philpot said he hopes he will be running in roughly the same largely rural 2nd Congressional District.
Clark would like to see a change to the makeup of the districts because, he said, rural voters are ignored in the current system.
"This has nothing to do with my intentions â¦ but I do think it would be appropriate for southern Utah or rural Utah to have a voice," he said. For the last decade, rural voters have voted predominantly for a Republican, but, Clark said, they haven't been represented by Matheson.
"Our voice has been muted, so I would hope to see a change in that direction," he said.
In the past, two models for dividing the state have received the most attention: The doughnut model in which Salt Lake County is turned into a solid Democratic seat, leaving three solid GOP seats and the wheel model, in which the county is basically quartered by radiating spokes, creating four Republican-leaning districts.
But another proposal that might address Clark's concerns and potentially his interests is getting some traction. In it, the southern half of the state, from Utah County to the Arizona border, would be one, predominantly rural, district. The state's more populous northern half would then be split three ways.
Incoming House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, who will appoint the House chairman of the redistricting commission, said she plans on focusing on being speaker for the next two years.
"Politicians are never supposed to say 'never,' so I'm not going to say 'never,' but it's not something I'm thinking about right now," she said when asked if she has congressional ambitions.
Matheson, Utah's lone congressional Democrat, knows well the perils of redistricting after the Legislature in 2000 carved up his district to add Republican voters. The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page at the time called the move a GOP "scam" and some of the worst gerrymandering in history.
This time, Matheson has called for Gov. Gary Herbert to name an independent redistricting panel like the one his father, then-Gov. Scott Matheson, appointed in 1980. But Herbert has refused, citing the state Constitution, which grants that authority to the Legislature.
"I don't think politicians should be drawing their own boundaries," Matheson said, deflecting multiple questions on what he'd like to see for his district in 2012. "I don't think it should be up to me. I shouldn't be picking my constituents. I just don't think that's my role."
Matheson expects there will be public hearings to ask Utahns what they want from redistricting, then a "closed-doors process that draws the actual boundaries."
Freshman Rep. Jason Chaffetz said the Legislature's 2000 redistricting effort was "inept," since it attempted to put Matheson in a stronger Republican district, but failed.
Chaffetz said his only goal in the next round of redistricting is to end up living in the district he represents. The Utah Republican lives in Alpine, a few miles from the boundary of the 3rd Congressional District he represents.
"Ideally, my wife would like to be able to vote for me," Chaffetz said.
Rep. Rob Bishop, who in 2002 nabbed the seat vacated by 22-year veteran Rep. Jim Hansen, says he knows what he'd like to see but it's impossible.
"I'd like to keep my [current] area," he says, "but that's not going to happen."
The Brigham City native wants to keep Ogden and Hill Air Force Base, for sure, and says it's good for members to have a mix of rural and urban.
"I personally believe that's healthy," he said. "It forces everyone in the House to work together."
Todd Taylor, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, said drawing boundaries to serve individual political aspirations is exactly the wrong way to do it.
"When you're talking about drawing a map for a person, it has nothing to do with serving the public interest," he said.
The Democrats have supported the Fair Boundaries Initiative, a drive aimed at creating an independent redistricting advisory panel. The effort failed to gather enough signatures to put it on the ballot, but Taylor said voters want a less politicized process.
"[Democrats] have zero power in this except for calling on them to do what's right for the citizens of Utah," he said, "but all these schemes based around partisan representation and individual people are flat-out wrong."
The future •
What lies ahead?
P It will be months before the public gets a good idea how the new congressional districts might look.
While the official reapportionment Tuesday begins the process, the real work by the Legislature's redistricting commission likely won't start until after the legislative session and it could take months to work through.
No matter how the maps are drawn, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop says redistricting will help add more clout for the West, a region he says is often misunderstood by members of Congress from the East Coast who don't have big portions of their states controlled by the federal government.
Beyond Utah's expected gain of one seat, Nevada and Arizona are each likely to claim another seat, and Texas three.
"It's going to mean more voices from people who actually understand what the hell it means to have public lands," Bishop said.