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Utah stays course

State bucks trend, sticks with the GOP

Across the nation Tuesday, Americans were voting for change, a new wave of "throw the bums out" seen every decade or so in modern U.S. politics.

But not here.

In Utah, despite congressional candidates spending upward of $8 million campaigning, nothing changed — incumbent federal lawmakers won in relatively easy contests.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, gets six more years — a combined 36 years, setting a new record of longevity for Utah after he's sworn in come January.

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, won his largest victory ever; unofficial results showing him winning 59-37 percent.

And Reps. Rob Bishop in the 1st District and Chris Cannon in the 3rd District, both R-Utah, coasted to victories. With the loss of the U.S. House to Democrats, all three men's positions and power will change.

While there was a definite Democratic wave across the nation, Matheson said: "I don't think that wave hit Utah." His margin of victory was his largest ever, but Matheson says that was more "because I've been in office in my new district four years, and people have gotten to know me."

Republicans keep control of the Utah Legislature, tallying 30 years of GOP control of both state houses. GOP state leaders had high hopes of knocking off several Democratic state senators and winning a couple of Salt Lake County east-bench open seats held by retiring Democratic senators, but at press time Democrats were leading in all those races.

Likewise, Democrats were holding their own in a number of races targeted by Republicans. And House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, was in the fight of his 12-year career for his seat with Democrat Jay Seegmiller in District 49 — Curtis winning by just 46 votes, final but unofficial results show. Seegmiller says he'll ask for a recount.

As expected, Utah County was swept by GOP candidates for the Utah House and Senate.

Utah Democrats, however, did have one bright spot Election Day: Salt Lake County.

At-Large County Councilman Jim Bradley, a Democrat, wins another term. Democratic Clerk Sherrie Swensen was victorious. County auditor could go to Democrat Jeff Hatch, although that race was still too close to call early Wednesday.

And Democrats pick up a county officer with the defeat of GOP Sheriff Aaron Kennard by Democrat Jim Winder— a race that turned ugly Sunday when Salt Lake County Republican Party chairman James Evans passed out an edited-down eight-minute disc of a six-hour cop training session where Winder swore and made fun of several fellow law officer departments. Kennard worried Monday that the disc could bring voter backfire; it certainly didn't help him.

But Salt Lake County Democrats fell just short of nabbing the big one: Control of the Salt Lake County Council. GOP incumbent David Wilde in District 3 seat, the swing seat, was beating Democrat Diane Turner early Wednesday.

In his exit polling for KSL-TV, pollster Dan Jones learned that "Democrats in Salt Lake County were especially energized — looking for change. The rest of the state, not so much so."

All three tax-hike propositions passed in Salt Lake County — the ZAP tax and open space preservation come with small property tax hikes, the transit and roads sales tax hike at .25-cents.

Likewise, the .25-cent sales tax hike for transportation passed in Utah County.

Controversial 3rd District Judge Leslie Lewis (the district is mostly in Salt Lake County) was losing her retention election late Tuesday. Lewis would be one of just a handful of judges kicked out by voters in retention election history.

Lewis has angered several groups by her harsh courtroom demeanor and was investigated by authorities when she apparently inappropriately reduced a sex offender's sentence. A pro-hunting group put up on the Internet a video recording where Lewis chewed out a relative of a defendant and ordered the man, who was not charged with anything, to be held in a cell for 20 minutes because he dared speak back to the judge after she asked him a question.

State Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, didn't press Matheson as hard as GOP leaders had hoped. Christensen's poor showing may be due to a number of factors — he tends to talk in generalities, pushes the Constitution and Founding Fathers, and never took a hard line against the Democrat.

Matheson killed Christensen in the 2nd District's eastside Salt Lake County precincts, winning 68 percent of the vote and helping Democratic legislative candidates.

Christensen, who spent $600,000 of his own money on the race, said he didn't have the funds to get his message out. "The amount of money it takes to communicate is most unfortunate. It is more like an exercise in marketing than politics." Christensen didn't close the door on running for a major office again, saying: "I will serve whereever we can do good."

In addition, the national Republican Party and other pro-GOP groups stayed out of the 2nd District race. Whereas in elections past they've dumped $1 million or more in anti-Matheson or pro-GOP nominee ads, it was just a two-man race this time.

"I'm glad we had that (two person) race this time," Matheson said Tuesday night. "It was good that outside groups didn't come in."

With a recount coming in the Virginia U.S. Senate race, it could be that national Democrats could fall just one seat short in their attempt to take control of the Senate.

So Hatch and Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, may barely hang on in the majority. Bennett told the Deseret Morning News editorial board this week that he won't seek a formal leadership position but that if Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, should become majority leader, he has told Bennett he will be an informal member of the GOP leadership team. Hatch won't have a shot at chairman of the Finance Committee until 2009.

Hatch said that as a conservative in the Senate for 30 years, he has never been in a majority with other conservatives. "I'll just do the best I can" with the House going to the Democrats and the Senate so close to parity, said Hatch.

With the projected Democratic victories in the U.S. House, Utah's three congressmen will find themselves in new positions: Matheson has never been in the majority, and Bishop and Cannon have never been in the minority.

Cannon loses a subcommittee chairmanship on the House Judiciary Committee. It's yet to be seen if GOP House leaders will keep Bishop on the powerful Rules Committee (Republicans will get fewer seats now).

Matheson, now a four-term Democrat, will most likely not get a subcommittee chairmanship — too many senior Democrats ahead of him. But he is co-chairman of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, and with a number of new, conservative Democrats coming into the 2007 House, Matheson could play a larger behind-the-scenesrole in U.S. House policymaking.

Brigham Young University political science professor Kelly Patterson says that exit polling done by his students Tuesday tells him that Utah — long a very red state — turned out to be even more Republican this year than in 2004. "We still have to go through some of the numbers, but it looks like (Utahns) were even more Republican in their voting, by a few percentage points, than two years ago."

Utah gave Bush his highest majority victories of any state in 2000 and 2004.

Utah Democrats believed they had some real shots in the county and legislative races this year. First off, even Bush was suffering in the polls in Utah — above 50 percent but way down in his job-approval ratings over recent years.

It was a midterm election — no Republican presidential candidate on the ballot.

And unlike 2004 where an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment was on the ballot, there were no moral statewide issues for Democrats to face.

Utah seemed to weather use of the new video electronic voting machines well.

There were some glitches early Tuesday. But as polling places became crowded in the evening, things seemed to work well.

BYU's Patterson said his exit polling showed that by far most Utahns really liked the new machines and thought poll workers were informed and courteous.

Voter turnout wasn't setting any records. In Salt Lake County about 45 percent of registered voters used the new electronic machines.

In the only statewide proposition — an amendment to the Utah Constitution that would allow the Legislature to exempt from property taxes small personal property items — was winning 2-to-1.

Finally, in terms of money, in the U.S. Senate and three U.S. House races in Utah, between $7.5 million and $8 million was spent (the final totals are not yet in) on their campaigns.

The king of cash was Hatch, who raised more than $6.2 million since his last re-election in 2000 and spent more than $4.2 million. His Democratic challenger, Pete Ashdown, founder and president of XMission Internet access service, could have poured millions of dollars into his own campaign. He didn't, spending just over $38,000 — adding he wouldn't be a "rich guy buying his own seat."

Matheson raised $1.7 million and spent more than $1.2 million. He easily defeated state Christensen, who spent more than $500,000 of his own money, only to finish further behind Matheson than any of his previous three GOP victims.

And even Cannon got into the money race this year. Since first winning election in 1996 where he spent liberally from his own bank account, Cannon has not been a good fund-raiser. This year he spent $1.2 million, including $140,000 of his cash.

Contributing: Lee Davidson and Deborah Bulkeley