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Democrats make a small dent in GOP’s supermajorities in the Utah Legislature

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) The Utah House chamber on the last day of the 2019 legislative session on March 14, 2019.

Democrats were on track Tuesday to pick up several seats in the Utah Legislature, but not enough to erase the two-thirds supermajorities that Republicans enjoy in both chambers.

Republicans now hold a 59-16 margin in the House, so Democrats needed to flip 10 seats there to end the two-thirds GOP advantage.

Democrats appeared to fall short of that but picked up at least one seat Tuesday night; were leading in three more races that were too close to call, and were close but trailing in four other contests.

Long-serving Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, was apparently defeated Tuesday.

Hutchings, who served in the House for 18 years, trailed Democrat Ashlee Matthews, an employee of the Utah Department of Transportation, by a 54% to 46% margin, or 3,569 to 3,057 votes, according to unofficial returns at 12:20 a.m. on Wednesday. Their district has become more Democratic in recent years, and Hutchings had won by a scant 118 votes two years ago.

Three other Democrats were leading races that appeared to be too close to call late Tuesday.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who served in the House for 10 years, trailed Wendy Davis, who has a doctorate in political science, by a 53% to 47% margin, or 6,338 to 5,668 votes, after tightening late in the evening from earlier wider margins, according to unofficial tallies. That seat is Democratic enough that it was carried by Hillary Clinton four years ago.

Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, a former House majority leader who has served in the House for 18 years, was trailing Democrat Lynette Wendel, a member of the Taylorsville Planning Commission, by a 51.4% to 48.6% margin, or 4,907 votes to 4,636. Dunnigan was seen as vulnerable because he led the charge to change the voter-approved Proposition 3, which had expanded Medicaid.

Also, Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, was barely leading Democrat Siamak Khadjenoury, CEO of Altium Health and an immigrant from Iran, by a 50.4% to 49.6% margin, or 7,167 to 7,044 votes.

Three other Republicans were leading Democratic challengers in races too close to call.

Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, led Democratic union representative Diane Lewis by a 50.2% to 45.3% margin (with Libertarian candidate Jefferson Bardin receiving 4.5% of the vote), or 4,610 to 4,167 votes, according to unofficial returns.

Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, also barely led Democrat Fatima Dirie by a 51.1% to 48.9% margin, or 3,043 to 2,908 votes. He has served eight years in the district that is considered Democratic, and the district even voted for Clinton four years ago.

Freshman Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, led Democrat Oscar Mata by a 53.6% to 46.4% margin, or 6,022 to 5,219 votes. Waldrip won his seat four years ago by 214 votes.

The race for an open seat was in play. In the race for the seat of retiring Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber, Republican Mike Kohler led Democrat Meaghan Miller by a 55% to 45% margin, or 12,404 votes to 10,173.

No change seemed likely in the 23-6 supermajority that Republicans now hold in the Utah Senate. Democrats needed to flip four seats to erase the supermajority status there, but both parties appeared on track to maintain the seats they currently hold.

Two Senate races were close.

Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, led Democrat Erika Larsen by a 53.4% to 46.6% margin, or 13,835 votes to 12,059.

In the race for the open seat of retiring Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, Republican John D. Johnson led Democrat Katy Owens 52.6% to 47.4%, or 16,283 to 14,679 votes.

Republicans have held two-thirds majorities in the House since the 1994 elections — 26 years ago, according to research by Brigham Young University political science professor Adam Brown. They have held such supermajorities in the Senate since 2000.

The last time that Democrats won a majority in the Utah Senate was in the 1976 election, 44 years ago, Brown said. The last time they won a majority in the Utah House was in 1974.

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