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Hansen’s retirement spices up 2002 elections

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The 2002 elections were looking to be a bit boring until Rep. Jim Hansen surprised just about everyone this past week by announcing his retirement after 22 years in the U.S. House.

I won't go into Hansen's accomplishments here. They are substantial, as even his political foes will admit.

While Hansen, 69, mellowed in the past few years, especially after the Republicans won control of the U.S. House and Hansen became first a powerful subcommittee chairman and then an even more powerful committee chairman, he was a prickly fellow for a long time — often arguing with the media, environmentalists and even some members of his own Republican Party.

He will be missed, no doubt. Many say without Hansen's constant battling, Utah would have lost Hill Air Force Base to closure and with it thousands of jobs and millions of dollars a year in economic support in northern Utah.

In any case, it took about 10 minutes after Hansen's announcement for people to start talking about who could replace him and the politics of the newly drawn 1st Congressional District.

It was no secret that Hansen didn't like how the GOP-controlled Legislature last fall redrew his district. While it was not the main reason for his retirement, it probably played a part.

Also part of the equation was national politics. Hansen told me during the 2000 campaign that if Republicans lost control of the U.S. House, he would retire.

It's a general historical fact that the party not holding the White House loses seats in the 435-member House in mid-year elections. And 2002 is a mid-year election, and Republicans hold a slim majority now.

If Hansen ran again and won and Republicans lost the House, he'd have to serve two years in the minority or resign his seat early — neither option very appealing.

The old 1st District voted around 66 percent Republican; the new district, which includes more than half the population of Salt Lake City, is about 60 percent Republican voting.

Sixty percent is considered the breaking point — have a U.S. House or legislative district that is 60 percent one party or the other and a competent, adequately funded candidate of that party should hold it no problem.

So Republicans enter the 1st District race the clear front-runners.

But odd things can happen.

Freshman Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson won the 2nd District seat in 2000, a district that Matheson says voted around 57 percent Republican historically.

And former 3rd District Rep. Bill Orton, a Democrat, won in that heavily Republican district in 1990, 1992 and 1994 before being knocked out in 1996 by millionaire GOP challenger Chris Cannon.

Could Utah, one of the most Republican states in the nation, go back to having two of its three U.S. House members being Democrats, as was the case from 1990 to 1994?

Democratic state chairwoman Meg Holbrook surely hopes so.

"We're going after (the open Hansen seat) with everything we've got," she told me this week with a big smile on her face.

But Democrats could be pounded in congressional races next November, as well.

The Republican Legislature took Matheson's 2nd District, which used to be all in Salt Lake County with a home base of Salt Lake City, and pushed it out into eastern and southern Utah.

While the 1st District gets the heavily Democratic Salt Lake neighborhoods of Rose Park, Glendale, Central City and Capitol Hill, Matheson's 2nd District gets Washington and Iron counties, GOP areas that always gave Hansen solid votes.

So Republicans could also sweep the three U.S. House races this year — with Democrats going back to the dog days of the early 1980s and late 1990s, when Republicans held all three.

Money is always important in winning an open seat.

Utah House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, is a millionaire and says if he gets in the 1st District race, he's willing to spend some of his own cash.

Davis County businessman Doug Holmes is also reportedly wealthy and considering the GOP race.

Don't be surprised to see a field of four, five or even six good Republican candidates in the 1st District. That really muddies the waters, and especially in a convention fight, money doesn't mean as much in a big field of hard campaigners.

In 2000, two Republican millionaires challenged then-GOP Rep. Merrill Cook (also a millionaire) in the 2nd District, and one of them, Derek Smith, knocked Cook out in the June 2000 GOP primary.

But while money will always be important, this year is different.

Republicans will have a closed June primary. Only those few already registered as Republicans and those who officially are "independents" will be allowed to vote. And the independents must register at the polls on primary day as Republicans to get a GOP ballot.

The goal of the 2001 state GOP delegates — who voted in the change — is to keep registered Democrats and Democratic-voting independents out of selecting Republican nominees.

My guess is that GOP candidates across the board — but especially congressional candidates whose political philosophies are watched more carefully by the public — will be leaning to the right this year, appealing to state party delegates and more-loyal GOP voters.

Democrats may hope that a more-right-wing Republican candidate won't do as well in the final election.

But when your party is pulling 60 percent of the vote in the district, you have to really do something odd to turn off 11 percent of the voters and cost yourself a seat.

With Republicans coming after Matheson in a 2nd District more Republican because of redistricting, and Democrats seeing a ray of hope in the 1st District, which is more Democratic in 2002, even though Utahns have no U.S. Senate or governor contest this year, Election 2002 will be a more lively affair.

All thanks to Hansen's unexpected departure.

Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com