Trib Caucus: Candidate filings hint at changes in the Utah Legislature

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Occasionally, The Salt Lake Tribune’s political reporters and columnists chat about the hottest topics of the week. The following is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Benjamin Wood (education reporter): Welcome to the Trib Caucus Slack chat, which used to convene weekly but is now something of an ad hoc assembly.

What brings us together today? The mad dash of candidate filings this week that formally kicked off the 2018 election season.

We’ll get into the notable matchups in a minute, but first let’s chat about the seemingly large number of incumbent retirements. Is this atypical or do I just have a short memory?

Lee Davidson (government reporter): We have 22 open-seat races in the Legislature this year. So one of five seats will switch over.

However, many House members are running for the Senate, so there may be some familiar faces.

Taylor Anderson (government reporter): The people I talked to earlier this week said it was a bit heavy turnover, but not too abnormal. That was before Senate President Wayne Niederhauser made his decision late to retire.

Robert Gehrke (political columnist): I’ve been doing this for a while ... 15 years, I guess. And I can’t recall this kind of turnover.

Wood: @gehrke any sense of the cause? Is it just weird timing or is something compelling incumbents to move?

Gehrke: I think it’s hard to pin it on any one reason. Some of these guys have been there a long time and are just old — Howard Stephenson, Pete Knudson, etc. Some of them appear to be just moving on — Wayne Niederhauser, Gage Froerer, Jeremy Peterson. Some, like Justin Fawson, have career opportunities. And some, like Greg Hughes, probably want to run for something else.

I think it’s a hodgepodge, rather than any broader trend.

Anderson: Hughes’ chief of staff Greg Hartley told me everyone’s leaving because they’re sad to see Hughes go.

Gehrke: (Also, add Mike Noel into the old and moving on category).

Michelle Quist (editorial writer): I think people are tired of not getting anything done. It takes a lot of patience, and bullying, to be successful in a representative democracy.

Gehrke: I mean, it can be a grind. I was talking to Rep. Becky Edwards the other day and she talked about that aspect a little. And at some point I think they ask themselves is it worth it?

Quist: Yes. It’s not 45 days. It’s all year.

Wood: Ain’t nobody got time for that, amirite @mquist?

Quist: Yup.

Wood: I saw you briefly flirted with a run, perhaps in jest? 🙂

Quist: Jesting.

Wood: Let’s talk about some of the dominoes here. Stephenson’s seat pulled both Rep. McCay and Rep. Christensen from the House for a Thunderdome battle. Niederhauser’s seat briefly pulled in Rep. Eliason, before he changed his mind and went back to a standard re-election campaign in the House. And Gage Froerer’s Democratic sister-in-law is now running for his seat.

Gehrke: I’d heard, even before Niederhauser’s announcement, that Eliason had his eye on a leadership race. And if he could get into leadership he probably could have more swat than as a freshman senator. So his decision makes some sense.

Quist: I get the attractiveness of the Senate - no campaign every two years. But why lose the seniority you’re building up?

Anderson: It looks like Niederhauser’s decision surprised lots of people, Eliason included. Eliason filed to run, thinking his name recognition in the district should help him win. Then so did two other fairly big names, and he flopped back to his House seat. I think he didn’t want a caucus battle that he could easily lose.

Davidson: Another interesting Thunderdome battle is between incumbent Sen. Margaret Dayton and Rep. Keith Grover, who is challenging her. Both are very conservative.

Wood: @leedavidson They’ve worked together in the past. Do we know if there’s any love lost in that challenge?

Davidson: In the Dayton-Grover contest, I don’t know. LaVar Christensen and Dan McCay profess they are friends and it will be a friendly contest. I don’t know if there is such a thing in politics.

Quist: I haven’t seen Grover get dirty from his brother’s shady dealings. Why not?

Wood: I can neither confirm nor deny that the Tribune education reporter is looking into that.

Gehrke: I would think that would have to come up in a campaign, Michelle. Dayton is not going to pull punches.

Quist: Well that’s for sure. We’ve seen that.

Wood: One of our first chats was about the national Democratic wave this year, and we generally concluded Utah had enough of a levy to stop the flooding. With all these open seats, will we see Utah Democrats expand their numbers in the chambers?

Anderson: Was Christensen afraid of losing this time around in a rematch for the House? And who’s got a better shot between he and McCay?

Quist: McCay.

Davidson: Christensen won by 5 votes for his House race. I don’t think he looked forward to the rematch there.

Quist: And he won by 5 to the same D running again. She may pick up that seat.

Gehrke: This could be a challenge for LaVar, I think. Because I can’t remember the last time he had a primary. He’s always won by smearing his Democratic opponent as a godless liberal, and I’m not sure he’ll be able to do that with McCay.

Note: LaVar did beat Austin Linford at convention in 2014.

Anderson: What I’m interested in locally, @bwood, is what happens in the races with United Utah and Democratic candidates, as well as Republicans. How voters split the three-way.

Wood: How many UUP candidates filed?

Anderson: 19.

Take Hughes’ seat - HD51 in Draper. Michele Weeks is running as United Utah. There’s also a Democratic city council member, plus a former Republican city councilman.

Does Weeks, a former Democratic Senate candidate, split with the Dem?

Quist: In this case she does because people know she’s a Democrat. UUP won’t fool many.

Gehrke: I think that HD51 could be a real battle. Michelle Weeks nearly beat Troy Walker, a popular mayor of Draper, last year. And I really think those Draper and Sandy areas are not as conservative as a lot of people think — as evidenced by the scare that Suzanne Harrison put into Christensen.

Davidson: Democrats had more success attracting candidates this year. There are far fewer unopposed seats. Alex Cragun, executive director of the party, said that was partially because of GOP problems that threatened to decertify that party. So candidates had hopes of perhaps no Republican appearing on the ballot against them.

Wood: I found it interesting how few unaffiliated candidates are on the list. Do we know if the UUP candidates are folk who otherwise would have run unaffiliated, or are they full-fledged representatives of the United Utah Party?

Quist: Is it a party if it has no principles?

Wood: There’s a joke there about parties in general...

Gehrke: I think this will be a really good test for the United Utah Party. And to take issue with what Michelle says about them not having principles, I think that’s not right. I think they do have principles and could actually draw considerable support from Republicans tired of the infighting in the party.

I don’t know that any of their candidates will win. But if the party wants to be viable they have to have a respectable showing in a few races.

Quist: Each candidate has principles, but the party doesn’t as a whole other than “we’re tired of Republicans.” It’s proven by the fact that candidates from both parties are now UUP members.

Gehrke: There is room for a third party, is my point. A lot of room, in my opinion, keeping in mind that about 40 percent of voters in this state are unaffiliated.

Wood: @gehrke do we have a modern example of a legislator who was neither D nor R? How unprecedented would a UUP win be?

Gehrke: There’s not really an example of a legislator who isn’t R or D that I can think of. There are examples of legislators changing parties. Eric Hutchings switched from Democrat to Republican shortly after he was appointed to fill a vacancy, and as you can imagine that upset some Dems.

Davidson: Mark Madsen was an elected Republican who switched to be a Libertarian before he left office a couple years ago.

Wood: Ah yes, thanks @leedavidson.

Gehrke: Good call Lee. I forgot about Madsen.

Quist: But he switched while in office.

Wood: And we never got to see him in action as a Libertarian during an actual session.

OK, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. ... Democrat Jenny Wilson formally filed to run for U.S. Senate.

Gehrke: She’s got this locked up.

Davidson: 19 candidates are in that race.

12 Republicans including some guy named Mitt Romney.

Wood: Name rings a bell...

Anderson: And a little someone they honestly call Abe Lincoln (Brian Jenkins)

I’m looking forward to Lincoln at the debates. Those Lincoln-Douglas debates would go for hours and hours. It should be an awful lot of fun.

Quist: Mitt will win, obviously. But Jenny will get a lot of publicity.

Davidson: After Mitt (and Abe), the next biggest Republican name is Rep. Mike Kennedy.

Wood: @mquist do you think Kennedy can force a primary at convention?

Quist: Maybe. But no.

Gehrke: If I may, I think it’s a little hard to predict that now because we don’t know what the delegate pool will look like until after caucuses.

If it was with the current delegate pool, I think Kennedy would have a very good shot at getting to a primary.

Quist: I think it’ll look like Mitt’s people.

Davidson: Mitt has been working hard to urge people to run for delegate.

Wood: But Romney is taking the dual track, which delegates love to punish (read: John Curtis).

Gehrke: I think that’s right, Ben. So if it’s the same pool that beat up Curtis for being a signature-gathering moderate in that district, then, yeah, Mitt will probably not fare as well.

If Romney’s folks are successful when it comes to stacking the caucus, the way Hatch did, he could coast.

Quist: Um, they beat up Curtis for being a Dem. Everyone collects signatures now.

Anderson: Not Herrod.

Quist: Herrod is Herrod.

Wood: You don’t think Curtis’ signature gathering had anything to do with it?

Quist: Nope. They all admit it’s almost a necessity now.

Wood: I seem to remember a group within the State Central Committee who don’t quite admit that...

Gehrke: You can ask Deidre Henderson, who didn’t gather signatures. It is a necessity, like insurance.

Davidson: Of course, Herrod is back again — running against John Curtis again.

Quist: They don’t like signatures, but in the FB groups they admit it’s smart to do.

Wood: OK we’re almost out of time. Does anyone want to ask me about state school board? (not required).

Quist: Nope.

Anderson: No.

Davidson: The what?

Quist: 😁

Wood: Fine by me. For our opinion folk, make your predictions on the hot races.

Gehrke: I mean, what should we know about the state school board, Ben? I’m interested.

Wood: TOO LATE! you had your chance 🙂

Quist: Mitt, McCay, Henderson for leadership.

Davidson: I would mention three lucky lawmakers drew no opponents, so their election is essentially over: Reps. Brian King, Travis Seegmiller and Adam Robertson. Congratulations!

Quist: Three is less than last election. That’s good. Seegmiller is surprising.

Wood: Add school board chairman Mark Huntsman to that category too @leedavidson. (there you go ya’ll, your school board info).

Quist: Republicans should threaten they won’t be on the ballot every election!

Wood: By the looks of the SCC, they just might.

Gehrke: The Sandy race to replace Niederhauser will be a doozy. Rep. Craig Hall will have a battle again for his House seat. I think Mike Winder could have his hands full. Sue Duckworth could be a target for Rs.

Wood: I would also add that I grew up in Rep. Froerer’s district, and anyone with the last name “Froerer”, even a Democrat, could do well there.

Gehrke: I think there are going to be a LOT of close races this year. Last election, Dems were close in five races. If what we saw in the Pennsylvania special election this week is any indication of the trend in this country, there could be a lot more this year.

Wood: Thanks everybody, not sure when we’ll do this again.

Readers, do you have any suggestions for topics the Trib Caucus could convene to discuss? Are you excited for Utah Republicans to once again be the party of Abe Lincoln? Let us know in the comments and remember to check sltrib.com and follow @TribCaucus on Twitter for updates on future chats.

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