Northern Utah voters oust Lyle Hillyard, the state’s longest-serving senator

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, is the longest sitting member of the Utah Senate, and of the Legisalture as a whole. Early election results make it appear as though this term will be his last on Capitol Hill. This file photo shows Hillyard in the Senate Chamber, Dec. 12, 2019, as lawmakers hold a special session focusing on tax reform.

Voters in northern Utah’s Senate District 25 appear to have ousted Sen. Lyle Hillyard, the state’s longest-serving senator and the sponsor of an unpopular tax reform bill that was overturned earlier this year amid a grassroots referendum effort.

Partial election night returns showed Hillyard, R-Logan, trailing businessman Chris Wilson by a margin of more than 3,300 votes. The incumbent lawmaker received 38% of the tally to Wilson’s 62%.

“The handwriting’s pretty clear that I’m not going to win the race,” Hillyard, a retired attorney who first came to the Legislature in 1981, said Wednesday afternoon.

His role in the tax reform bill was certainly a contributing factor in his showing on election night, even as the lawmaker expressed frustration in a debate last month with Wilson that the measure had been misunderstood.

“I feel like I’m speaking in the wind because nobody listens,” he said, pointing to structural imbalances in the state’s budget and the need to rebalance revenue streams as the impetus for the bill.

Hillyard said Wednesday that he doesn’t regret playing a leading role in the tax reform push but does wish lawmakers had done a better job of explaining the entire package to Utahns.

The lawmaker also came under fire earlier this year after he tweeted that “a person working a job that does not pay a livable wage really only has a hobby.”

He said at the time that he intended to highlight the availability of training options for higher-paying jobs. But images of Marie Antoinette, a guillotine and Rich Uncle Pennybags from the board game Monopoly quickly appeared in the roughly 200 replies to his tweet, nearly all of them negative and accusing Hillyard of failing to understand how a significant portion of the state’s population lives.

Wilson said in an interview Wednesday that it “wasn’t easy to take on a 40-year incumbent.” But he said he feels confident in the lead he’s built, which he believes shows a desire among voters in his district for “some new, fresh ideas, a fresh approach, a new perspective.”

“I believe it was a message that obviously, looking at the outcome, many other people in our district felt the same way,” he said.

Hillyard told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday that he’s done with politics, though he said he’d still like to find ways to serve. He said he also plans to take his wife on a vacation somewhere warm during the time frame when he’d usually be stuck at the state Capitol.

“It’s been a great honor for me to represent the people of Cache Valley,” he said. “I think I’ve made a difference in many ways, and I respect the vote of the people. They seem to think that I either didn’t do the right thing with the tax reform bill or I’ve been there too long. I’m ready to move on.”

Another incumbent who appeared to be in trouble Wednesday was Rep. Val Potter, who faced a challenge from North Logan resident Mike Petersen, a Republican who gathered signatures for the tax reform referendum. Potter was trailing Petersen by a margin of 751 votes Wednesday, bringing in 44% of the vote to his opponent’s 56%.

Petersen, who had made taxes a major issue in the race, said Wednesday that he was “certain that the tax reform played a piece” in those results. And while he noted that there were a number of outstanding ballots left to be counted, he said he was optimistic about his chances.

“I’m pretty hopeful that these will hold tight,” he said.

Potter said early Wednesday that he hoped there was a chance new ballots would boost his numbers. But he recognized that the margin “is definitely in [Petersen’s] favor.”

And while the North Logan lawmaker agreed that tax reform was a major component in the race, he said he stands by his support for the bill — even if it costs him his seat.

“I still think it was the right thing to do,” he said, though he noted that he didn’t endorse the food tax increase component of the bill. “The Legislature needs to face tax reform at some point. We went into it, the final bill, without explaining it well enough to the people and that would be the mistake I think we made.”

Potter said it’s too soon to decide whether he would stay in politics or what would come next for him if he does lose his seat. But he said he’s enjoyed his time in elected office.

“I’ve had good experiences in politics as a mayor and county councilman and legislator and I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve been there,” he said, “and I think I’ve done some very good things for the people of Cache County and the state of Utah.”

Keven Stratton, R-Orem and the lone lawmaker to vote against repealing the tax reform bill earlier this year, also looked to be in danger of losing his seat. He trailed opponent David Shallenberger, an engineer and attorney, by a razor-thin margin of 42 votes on Wednesday.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Rep. Keven J. Stratton, R-Orem, appears before the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee as the Utah State Legislature meets in Salt Lake City, Jan. 24, 2017.

Several incumbents appear to have survived their intraparty challengers, though. Those include Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, who faced Merillee Boyack, a well-known anti-abortion advocate. Boyack trailed Christofferson in election night results by a margin of more than 1,200 votes, though she won 62% of the vote in the party convention last April.

Also leading in close races were Rep. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, in House District 10, and Sen. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, in Senate District 6 — both of whom had faced challengers on the basis of the tax reform bill.

Fillmore brought in 52% of the vote, with former state lawmaker Rich Cunningham trailing at 48%. In the District 6 race, Harper had 53% of the vote while his opponent, Karen Hyatt, captured 47%.

All House members and half the state’s senators are up for election this year, though winners have already been determined in 11 of the 90 legislative races. Nine Republicans and two Democratic incumbents ran unopposed and in another four contests, GOP members were challenged only by candidates from minor parties that haven’t won a state election here in decades.

Changes to this year’s primary election in light of the COVID-19 outbreak mean it may take some time to determine a winner in several state legislative races that appear close. Election results won’t be final until the official canvass is complete in three weeks.