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Bob Bernick Jr.: Utah elections unlikely to bring much change

Eleven days until the 2004 elections, and what have we learned so far?

1. A whole lot of money will be spent in Utah races this year with, I'm guessing, not much change.

2. The governor's race — the first open chief executive contest in a dozen years — started out with a bunch of Republicans in the pack, loads of cash being spent, and is ending with a relatively quiet pop. Certainly not a bang.

3. The most interesting race this season didn't look that way at the March candidate filing deadline. Who would have guessed that GOP Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman's re-election juggernaut (she had $500,000 in her early war chest) would strike the shoals and sink?

She didn't go down as quickly as the Titanic, but it was painful to view, nonetheless.

4. The LDS Church, which rarely speaks on political issues, is a dominant, deciding factor when it does.

5. You can run a winning race for the U.S. House (like in the 1st and 3rd districts) in a big election year and remain nearly invisible.

6. A Jim Matheson/John Swallow congressional contest is, now by definition, a bitter, hard fight.

To elaborate:

Nine GOP candidates, including Utah's first female governor, Olene Walker, filed to run for governor this year.

Democrat Scott Matheson Jr. had his party's nomination sewed up a year ago.

It was a tough battle for the Republicans from the get-go. One, local medical supply manufacturer Fred Lampropoulos, spent more than $3 million of his own money on the race. And he, like Walker, former U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen and Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens, was eliminated in a May state Republican convention.

The monthlong GOP primary race between Jon Huntsman Jr. and former state House speaker Nolan Karras proved to be a sleeper — a big win for Huntsman.

And the Huntsman/Matheson final election campaign has been one of the most cordial affairs in decades. There are differences between the two men's approaches to the top state job, yes, but compared to the U.S. presidential and 2nd Congressional District campaigns, the governor's race is a kissy-face contest.

I mean, how much nicer can Huntsman and Scott Matheson be?

We don't have that problem in the race of incumbent Jim Matheson, Scott's younger brother.

It appears to me that the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill has had some effect on this contest. Under the new law, outside groups can't run negative (or positive) independent TV campaigns 60 days from the election.

Rep. Matheson this summer thought groups might come in before the two-month deadline to pound him. They didn't.

Now we're seeing massive spending by the national Republican and Democratic parties for and against each man. But we are not being bombarded by some independent PACs, as was the case in Rep. Matheson's races of 2002 and 2000.

As of Tuesday of this week, the National Republican Congressional Committee had put $865,000 into the race. Some of its spending is pro-Swallow; some anti-Matheson.

Matheson especially dislikes the automated telephone calls going into 2nd District homes. The NRCC is paying Conquest Communications Group $20,000 (as of Tuesday) for the telephoning, where a recorded message says if he'd had his way there would be no Bush tax cuts, no partial-birth abortion ban.

Actually, Matheson points out, he voted for the major Bush tax cut bills and voted last year for the partial-birth abortion bill. He was invited by Bush to the White House to view the signing of both measures, he says.

And, finally, this past week the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a new statement on same-sex marriage.

In several other states when the issue of same-sex marriage came up on the ballot, the church actually spent money there advocating that the traditional marriage between a man and a woman be incorporated into law. So far, the church has not given cash toward passage of Amendment 3 here. (The amendment has two parts, the first defining marriage, the second saying no legal benefits of a man/woman marriage can be placed on other unions.)

But this week the church issued a statement that is read by many as a backhanded endorsement of Amendment 3, without actually supporting that specific amendment's language. Public opinion polls showed that most Utahns were supporting Amendment 3 before the church statement. But it's my guess that the statement shuts the door — Amendment 3 will pass here.

Why did the church issue the new statement?

I don't know, and the church's media office is not elaborating on the statement itself. Certainly the amendment was headed for passage without the new statement. But in watching the Amendment 3 debate one thing was clear — opponents of the amendment were clearly saying that the church's "silence" on Amendment 3 itself meant that perhaps leaders did feel it was poorly worded, and so should be defeated Nov. 2, with the Legislature trying again later.

And some supporters of Amendment 3 were frustrated that they couldn't mobilize their conservative base by saying church leaders supported Amendment 3, because leaders hadn't said that.

The latest church statement — while stopping short of actually endorsing the amendment by name — still helps the amendment's backers and hurts its opponents.

As we approach Nov. 2, one thing is clear. The presidential election — if not local Utah contests — has resulted in record numbers of new voters being registered. And greater participation in elections is always a good thing, regardless of who or what is on the ballot.


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