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Primary election continues wild and crazy year of pandemic, plunging economy, protests and politics

SHARE Primary election continues wild and crazy year of pandemic, plunging economy, protests and politics

Abby Cox, left, and her husband, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, state Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, and her husband Gabe, right, are projected onto the screen as they talk to supports during an election night event at the Basin Drive-In Theatre in Mt. Pleasant, Sanpete County on Tuesday, June 30, 2020.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Happy July Fourth weekend! A good time to reflect on that great American pastime — politics. The recent Republican primary reflects everything about 2020 — confusing, unsettled, unprecedented, trendsetting and certainly interesting. Although some races were too close to call at our Thursday noon deadline, we do our best to hit some moving targets.

Did the push to register unaffiliated voters and Democrats make a difference in this election? Is there still a possibility of a surprise in any contest? Any trends worth watching?

Pignanelli: “Politics ought to be fun. It shouldn’t be just boring meetings.”— Jim Hightower

This primary election is a high dosage of the drug to which all of us political junkies are addicted. We are geeking out over unusual numbers and developing hundreds of different scenarios. Our machinations are all very weird but also fun (although anxious candidates aren’t amused). For example, many of us are wonking over details surrounding the voter affiliation movements. On Jan. 1, 2020 there were 675,205 active Republican voters. By election day this jumped to 780,555. The facts are indisputable. The overwhelming number of these registrations were for the purpose of voting in this primary — very likely for one gubernatorial candidate.

But this new infusion also impacted other races. Freshly minted GOP primary voters are believed to have voted late and therefore other close races could be altered by this dynamic. 

So, freaks like me will be anxiously waiting to see how many switch back to original affiliations. We pray for a professional survey to determine the thought process behind this historic twist.

Other elements also need to be examined. Could this be the beginning of a trend that party affiliations are a fungible personal decision — easily altered depending upon the circumstances of the election? Will centrist candidates of either party pursue a similar strategy of appealing across the political spectrum in a partisan primary?

Webb: If you’re a political junkie, you gotta love the gubernatorial race. It was David (Spencer Cox) vs. Goliath (Jon Huntsman). There was intrigue. There was big money. There were spoilers. There was cross-voting. There was the unprecedented context of a global pandemic hitting Utah hard, an economic collapse, plus local and nationwide protests and riots.

If Huntsman wins, he can thank two factors: 1. Greg Hughes and Thomas Wright siphoned conservative votes away from Cox. 2. An unprecedented number of unaffiliated voters and Democrats registered as Republicans and Huntsman won a large share of those votes.

If Cox wins, it will simply be because Utah voters really, really like this smart, positive, upbeat, empathetic young man from little old Fairview.

Win or lose, it’s remarkable how well Cox did against the Huntsman juggernaut. He took a twice-elected former governor, former ambassador to China and Russia, and the scion of a Utah royal family right to the political brink. That’s an amazing achievement. It demonstrates Cox’s popularity and shows he has a bright political future in Utah if he chooses to stay in the game.

If Huntsman wins, he has the experience, leadership, stature and relationships to take the state to unprecedented levels of success.

David Leavitt ran a strong race as a criminal justice reformer against incumbent Attorney General Sean Reyes. His ideas deserve strong consideration no matter who wins.  

Some races have been called. Were there any surprises?

Pignanelli: The strong showing of Burgess Owens in the 4th Congressional District raised many eyebrows as many expected the race to be tighter. Thus, Owens’ appeal to the new unaffiliated voters may be an element in the general election against Ben McAdams. So, neither candidate should take them for granted.

Lyle Hillyard is a 40-year legislative veteran. All expected a tough challenge by Chris Wilson, but the surprise was the margin defeat for Hillyard. This race, and real (and potential) losses incurred by other incumbents, reveals tax reform remains a hot issue.

Webb: I was surprised that Burgess so easily won the 4th District nomination. The gloves have quickly come off for the general election against Democratic incumbent Ben McAdams. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a hit piece against Owens even before the race was called in his favor. The Republicans have been going after McAdams for months. Owens badly needs to appeal to moderates, not just the Republican base. McAdams, with his Boy Scout persona (somewhat like Cox) will be hard to beat. 

What can Utahns expect if one of the major races comes down to a difference of just a few thousand votes?

Pignanelli: Expect to hear phrases like “Chasing voters after the election,” “Harvesting ballots,” Lawyering Up” — which describe the activities performed by campaign operatives in razor thin elections.

Webb: Recounts will finalize a winner, if necessary, and we will move on with new leadership.