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Hansen’s redrawn district a wide-open race

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Rarely has conservative GOP U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen made Utah Democrats drool. Spit in anger, maybe.

But some Democrats are drooling over the prospect of actually winning the 1st Congressional District this year for the first time since 1978.

Hansen, 69, announced Tuesday morning he's retiring at the end of 2002, ending a 22-year career in the U.S. House. The move creates an open congressional seat that will likely attract nationwide interest and big money of both Republicans and Democrats.

Twice, in 1986 and again in 1990, Democrats came close to defeating Hansen, who has driven the environmental-preservationist wing of the party crazy over the years. But each time Hansen edged out a victory. In recent years, even with what seemed popular, well-financed Democratic candidates, Hansen coasted to victory.

But last year the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature redrew the boundaries for Utah's three U.S. House seats. And in a clear effort to put more Republicans in Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson's 2nd District, more Democrats and independents were put in Hansen's 1st District.

Hansen didn't like it. And Tuesday he told the Deseret News his newly drawn district was one reason — although not the main one — for his retirement. Hansen even complained that redistricting had hurt Republican chances more in his district than it had hurt Matheson.

Indeed, even before Tuesday's announcement, state Democratic Party executive director Todd Taylor said, "We can win this thing," after seeing the new boundaries.

Hansen claimed he could have still won in his new district. But now, the prospect of facing Democratic and minority voters in Salt Lake City's west side and Central City areas will fall to another Republican.

Here are some changes in the 1st District that candidates will consider before the mid-March filing deadline:

The district will now take in 52 percent of the population of Salt Lake City, the state's largest and home to the major media and businesses. The district creeps to 700 East in the city, placing the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1st District as well.

"Think about it. All of the TV stations' headquarters, the two big newspapers' offices, the downtown business community, the State Capitol and City-County Building — much of the establishment — all are in the 1st District now, not the 2nd District," which was the traditional home of the capital city, says Democratic Party executive director Todd Taylor.

More media coverage of the 1st District race will mean brighter lights on the candidates and their stands. Headquarters of local businesses could mean more campaign money.

The national spotlight will also likely fall on the race. Republicans hold only a 10-seat majority in the U.S. House, and the Utah 1st District will be among a relative few nationally with an open-seat race. That should make it a major battleground that attracts money from interest groups nationwide.

The 1st District is still Republican, an analysis by state Democrats shows. But it is less so.

The old 1st District, which included only the Salt Lake City International Airport and a few nearby subdivisions, now takes in the heavily Democratic voting areas of Rose Park, Glendale, Capitol Hill and Central City.

Redistricting also cost Hansen the solid GOP blocs of Washington and Iron counties in the south, which now go to Matheson's new 2nd District.

The 1st District goes from voting Republican around 66 percent of the time to voting Republican 60 percent of the time, the Democrats' analysis shows.

By partisan standards in other states, those are healthy numbers, and Utah Republicans should feel safe. As Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Wednesday, "In terms of having to defend an open seat, it doesn't get much better than this."

But Matheson won in 2000 in a district that voted Republican 57 percent of the time, and former 3rd District Democratic Rep. Bill Orton, who is considering the 1st District race, won three times in one of the most Republican districts in the nation.

2002 is a nonpresidential year that also doesn't have a U.S. Senate race in Utah or a governor's race. That means no coattails of national or even statewide Republicans to ride upon for the 1st District GOP nominee. The two times that Democrats came close to beating Hansen were in mid-term elections like 2002.

The 1st District will now contain growing numbers of racial and ethnic minorities and an identifiable gay and lesbian population. The 2000 Census shows 21 percent of Salt Lake City are non-white minorities, one of the largest concentrations in the state.

Capitol Hill is one of the most liberal neighborhoods in the 1st District. The Democratic candidate inherits areas that could provide core volunteers and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Without Hansen's political power in the race, a good Democratic candidate will bring in national money, says Meg Holbrook, state Democratic Party chairwoman.

While other good 1st District Democratic candidates raised adequate funds (Hansen never tried to bury his Democratic opponents in campaign cash, one thing local and national Republicans faulted him for), you didn't see significant amounts of independent, so-called "soft money," coming into the 1st District because national Democrats didn't see it as a swing district.

Millions of dollars in soft money came into Matheson's 2nd District race in 2000. "We will now see national interest in (the 1st District) as well," Holbrook says.

Likely attracting the national spotlight to the race is that the 1st District is currently one of only 16 open-seat races in the 435-seat House. While a few more may develop in coming months, only 20 open-seat races occurred in 2000.

With Republicans holding a slim 10-seat majority in the House, every open seat is viewed as a major battleground that will likely attract plenty of money from national interest groups.

But Forti with the NRCC said Republicans aren't too worried. "President Bush won 70 percent of the vote in the new district . . . . It's still a very Republican seat, both by President Bush's number" and voting history.

E-MAIL: bbjr@desnews.com; lee@desnews.com