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The 15 most ‘flippable’ Utah legislative seats in this year’s election

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)The Utah State Capitol is shown during the Utah Legislature's virtual special session Thursday, April 16, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

Even if there’s a “blue wave” nationally next week, there’s almost no chance that Democrats will break the Republican hammerlock on control of the Utah State Legislature. Democrats would need a net pickup of 10 seats in the House and four in the Senate to break the GOP supermajorities, which is not likely. But there are several seats, mostly in the House, that both parties are targeting on Election Day.

For this breakdown, I spoke to several Republican and Democratic campaign consultants and operatives to get a sense of which seats they think might be in play.

The majority are now held by Republicans, which is to be expected given their huge majorities in both houses.

Republicans are generally feeling confident heading into Tuesday’s election. They mostly believe Democratic successes in 2018, when the minority party picked up four seats in the House, and one in the Senate, were driven largely by turnout for the three citizen ballot initiatives that year. They believe medical cannabis, Medicaid expansion and the anti-gerrymandering measure gave Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters ample motivation to show up at the polls, while there wasn’t much draw for Republicans.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats hope voter anger over the Legislature’s changes to all three of those initiatives coupled with the failed tax reform measure will bring their voters out this year. Not to mention, the soft support for President Donald Trump in Utah.

Along with those conversations with partisans, I looked at other factors to determine which districts were worth paying attention to on Tuesday, as the results start to come in. They include previous results, the margins of victory in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections as well as the 2018 U.S. Senate race, plus the current partisan voter registration numbers.

Below, in no particular order, are 14 House and one Senate district that are most likely to be close, or even flip partisan control this year.

Senate District 8 - Sen. Kathleen Riebe (D) vs. Brian Zehnder (R)

The district includes parts of Midvale, Murray and Cottonwood Heights.

This is a rematch from 2018. Riebe bested Zehnder by 5,893 votes after he was appointed to replace Sen. Brian Shiozawa, who resigned to take a job with the Trump administration.

This is a district that tends to lean Democratic, with Hillary Clinton carrying it in the 2016 presidential race and Jenny Wilson winning here in her unsuccessful 2018 Senate race. The general thought is the pro-Democratic environment nationwide should help Riebe keep her seat, especially if the sizable number of unaffiliated voters break in her direction.

  • 2012 president: Mitt Romney +16.09%

  • 2016 president: Clinton +13.22%

  • 2018 U.S. Senate: Jenny Wilson +1.8%

  • Registered Republicans: 19,174

  • Registered Democrats: 11,297

  • Unaffiliated voters: 16,656

House District 8 - Rep. Steve Waldrip (R) vs. Oscar Mata (D)

This district includes parts of Ogden, Eden and Huntsville.

Waldrip defeated Democrat Deana Froerer in 2018 by 214 votes, which is the primary reason why this district is on the list of possible flips, despite the significant Republican lean in the area. Democrat Oscar Mata is expected to give Waldrip a run for his money on Tuesday, but he’s going to need to pull a significant number of votes from independents and even some Republicans to get the upset.

  • 2012 president: Romney +32.5%

  • 2016 president: Donald Trump +8.3%

  • 2018 U.S. Senate: Romney +16.27%

  • Registered Republicans: 7,401

  • Registered Democrats: 3,023

  • Unaffiliated voters: 5,743

HD 9 - Rep. Calvin Musselman (R) vs. Steve Olsen (D)

This district includes parts of Ogden and West Haven.

Musselman won this 2018 race by just 575 votes. This is Olsen’s second run for the seat, having lost in 2014.

  • 2012 president: Romney +36.83%

  • 2016 president: Trump +17.28%

  • 2018 U.S. Senate: Romney +22.87%

  • Registered Republicans: 5,972

  • Registered Democrats: 2,506

  • Unaffiliated voters: 5,302

HD 10 - Rep. Lawanna “Lou” Shurtliff (D) vs. Travis Campbell (R)

This district includes parts of South Ogden and Washington Terrace.

Republicans would love to move this seat back in their column after Shurtleff won in 2018 following the retirement of longtime Rep. Dixon Pitcher.

Shurtliff is hardly an unknown to voters in northern Utah, having previously served in the Utah House from 1999 to 2008.

This was one of Trump’s worst-performing districts in 2016 as he beat Clinton by less than 2 points, which gives Democrats hope they can hang on again.

  • 2012 president: Romney +27.2%

  • 2016 president: Trump +1.57%

  • 2018 U.S. Senate: Romney +12.19%

  • Registered Republicans: 5,606

  • Registered Democrats: 2,743

  • Unaffiliated voters: 4,821

HD 22 [Open Seat] - Anthony Loubet (R) vs. Clare Collard (D)

This district includes parts of Magna, West Valley City, West Jordan and Herriman.

Longtime Democratic Rep. Susan Duckworth is not running for reelection for this seat centered mostly in Magna, and Republicans believe they have a real shot at picking up the win here.

Collard is hoping the third time is the charm for her as she previously lost elections for the Utah State Senate in 2014 and 2018.

Unaffiliated voters are the majority in this district, and Democrats and Republicans expect the final result to be close.

  • 2012 president: Romney +21.79%

  • 2016 president: Clinton +0.48%

  • 2018 U.S. Senate: Romney +5.83%

  • Registered Republicans: 4,930

  • Registered Democrats: 3,104

  • Unaffiliated voters: 5,602

HD 30 - Rep. Mike Winder (R) vs. Robert Burch (D)

This is a West Valley City district.

This is another rematch from 2018. Winder won last time by 1,368 votes.

Clinton carried this district in 2016, which gives Democrats hope they have a shot at a pickup here.

There are slightly more unaffiliated voters than Republicans, which means Democrats will need to have them break their way on Election Day.

  • 2012 president: Romney +23.37%

  • 2016 president: Clinton +4.83%

  • 2018 U.S. Senate: Romney +8.59%

  • Registered Republicans: 4,845

  • Registered Democrats: 2,873

  • Unaffiliated voters: 4,998

HD 32 - Rep. Suzanne Harrison (D) vs. Cindie Quintana (R)

This district includes parts of Sandy, Draper and South Jordan.

Harrison is running for her second term in the House. You’ll remember she lost to Republican rep. LaVarr Christensen in 2016 by just three votes before winning in 2018.

Republicans outnumber Democrats here by nearly 3.5 to 1, which is the primary reason they believe they can knock the freshman Democrat out of this seat.

Quintana is a longtime presence in Republican circles, but this is her first run for the Legislature.

  • 2012 president: Romney +43.33

  • 2016 president: Trump +11.63%

  • 2018 U.S. Senate: Romney +27%

  • Registered Republicans: 10,173

  • Registered Democrats: 2,973

  • Unaffiliated voters: 6,161

HD 33 - Rep. Craig Hall (R) vs. Fatima Dirie (D)

This is a West Valley City district.

Another election cycle usually means another round of speculating whether Hall can survive in this seat that has Democratic DNA at its core.

Winning this seat has been an obsession for Democrats. They’ve been trying to knock him off since he first won in 2012, and they think they might have the candidate to do it this time around.

Dirie, a newcomer to elected politics, was originally born in Somalia and serves as the refugee community liaison for Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

Clinton carried this seat by just over 13 points in 2016, her largest margin of victory in any Republican-held Utah House district. This is also the only GOP House seat Wilson carried during her 2018 U.S. Senate run.

  • 2012 president: Romney +8.48%

  • 2016 president: Clinton +13.18%

  • 2018 U.S. Senate: Wilson +1.6%

  • Registered Republicans: 3,473

  • Registered Democrats: 2,901

  • Unaffiliated voters: 4,439

HD 38 - Rep. Eric Hutchings (R) vs. Ashlee Matthews (D)

This is a Kearns district.

Democrats have come close to picking off this seat several times in the past decade, and nearly succeeded in 2018, but Hutchings held on by a scant 118 votes.

Clinton carried this seat in 2016, and Romney was held below 50% in his 2018 U.S. Senate campaign, which was his second-worst performance in a GOP House district that year.

  • 2012 president: Romney +22.39%

  • 2016 president: Clinton +4.1%

  • 2018 U.S. Senate: Romney +6.47%

  • Registered Republicans: 4,020

  • Registered Democrats: 2,673

  • Unaffiliated voters: 5,055

HD 39 - Rep. Jim Dunnigan (R) vs. Lynette Wendel (D)

This district includes parts of Taylorsville and Kearns.

This is another seat that Clinton carried in 2016, but it wasn’t by much.

Democrats think Dunnigan may be vulnerable because he was one of those who led the charge to change the voter-approved Prop. 3, which expanded Medicaid, but they’re going to need independent voters, and maybe some Republicans, to pull off the upset.

  • 2012 president: Romney +26.49%

  • 2016 president: Clinton +1.08%

  • 2018 U.S. Senate: Romney +11.89%

  • Registered Republicans: 6,082

  • Registered Democrats: 3,149

  • Unaffiliated voters: 5,696

HD 43 - Rep. Cheryl Acton (R) vs. Diane Lewis (D)

This is a West Jordan district.

Both Republican and Democratic insiders point to this seat as a possible flip on election night.

Normally, this would be one of the safest GOP-held seats, but the presence of United Utah Party nominee Jefferson Bardin is a wildcard that has everyone on edge.

If Bardin is able to siphon votes away from Acton, who is considered to be one of the most conservative members of the House, it could make for an interesting night.

  • 2012 president: Romney +35.7%

  • 2016 president: Trump +4.91%

  • 2018 U.S. Senate: Romney +20.44%

  • Registered Republicans: 6,595

  • Registered Democrats: 2,765

  • Unaffiliated voters: 5,701

HD 45 - Rep. Steve Eliason (R) vs. Wendy Davis (D)

This district includes Midvale, Cottonwood Heights and South Jordan.

Another GOP seat carried by Clinton in 2016.

While Democrats are targeting this seat, and Republicans think Eliason may be vulnerable, we really don’t know as Eliason ran unopposed in 2018. But, he cruised to easy wins in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

Davis wanted to challenge Eliason in 2014 but withdrew before the Democratic primary.

  • 2012 president: Romney +28.3%

  • 2016 president: Clinton +2%

  • 2018 U.S. Senate: Romney +10.92%

  • Registered Republicans: 7,885

  • Registered Democrats: 3,658

  • Unaffiliated voters: 6,440

HD 47 - Rep. Steve Christiansen (R) vs. Scott Bell (D)

This is a West Jordan district.

Normally, this seat would not be on the list of possible flips. But, Christiansen has been in office for a little more than a year, replacing longtime Rep. Ken Ivory, who resigned in September 2019.

This district is overwhelmingly Republican, but Democrats are hoping voters' unfamiliarity with Christiansen will give them a shot at the pickup. Remember, straight-ticket voting is no longer an option after the Legislature did away with it earlier this year.

  • 2012 president: Romney +39.67%

  • 2016 president: Trump +8.17%

  • 2018 U.S. Senate: Romney +26.19%

  • Registered Republicans: 7,284

  • Registered Democrats: 2,637

  • Unaffiliated voters: 5,421

HD 49 - Rep. Robert Spendlove (R) vs. Siamak Khadjenoury (D)

This district includes parts of Sandy and Draper.

Spendlove had a close call here in 2018, winning by just 553 votes, but a United Utah Party candidate almost played the spoiler, pulling in 1,112 votes in that race. There’s no third-party candidate on the ballot this time around.

Democrats are hoping Spendlove’s role as part of the failed tax reform initiative will give them a chance at swiping this seat away from the Republicans on election night.

  • 2012 president: Romney +31.44%

  • 2016 president: Trump +0.79%

  • 2018 U.S. Senate: Romney +16.35%

  • Registered Republicans: 10,730

  • Registered Democrats: 3,580

  • Unaffiliated voters: 6,435

HD 54 [Open Seat] - Mike Kohler (R) vs. Meaghan Miller (D)

This district includes Heber City and parts of Wasatch County.

This seat looks overwhelmingly Republican on paper, but Miller came within 162 votes of beating Republican Tim Quinn in 2018.

Quinn is not running for reelection and strange things can happen with open seats.

2012 president: Romney +24.27%

2016 president: Trump +1.35%

2018 U.S. Senate: Romney +15.6%

Registered Republicans: 12,205

Registered Democrats: 4,753

Unaffiliated voters: 7,763

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