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An election to match the craziest year in memory

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

We believe it’s safe to say that the one thing uniting this country is a deep, common desire for the year 2020 to end (but, please, not with another disaster!). Really, can it get any weirder? In addition to the global pandemic, along with floods, fires, earthquakes and hurricanes, we have a tsunami of an election hurtling to a climax, punctuated with upcoming debates and a blockbuster U.S. Supreme Court vacancy.

Your columnists may not have answers, but we are not short on opinions.

The first presidential debate is Tuesday Sept. 29. Also, Utah’s gubernatorial candidates face off on Tuesday, with congressional and attorney general debates to follow. Will these debates live up to the hype and impact the vote?

Pignanelli: “The president must lay out his vision, forcing Biden to lay out his. Then voters have a binary choice — the kind of election Trump can win. He cannot win a referendum election.” — Chris Christie.

Winged monkeys could swoop into the auditorium, whisking the candidates away and Americans watching would shrug and sigh, “Oh well, it’s 2020”. Anything can happen in these debates, affecting all federal elections.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter was three points ahead of Ronald Reagan prior to the only presidential debate. Because of the unexpected relative performance of the candidates, the resulting momentum propelled Reagan to a landslide victory.

Although Biden and Trump supporters are solidified, a performance exceeding, or failing expectations, will tilt the balance among undecideds. Even a perceived draw between the contenders cements the current status.

Most political debates in Utah are timid affairs with nominal impact. But, a Democratic candidate could catch his opponent unaware and score points that are leveraged in the media. Such results require real strategy and creativity.

As political geeks, we encourage readers to watch all the debates. Just be careful of those flying simians.

Webb: The presidential debates will mostly reinforce existing perceptions, but they will still be important. It’s a good opportunity for Biden to put to rest concerns about his vitality and mental acuity. If Trump would only tamp down the bombast and hyperbole (an impossibility) he could make inroads beyond his zealous base.

Some reports have indicated Trump won’t even prep for the debates. He’s constantly in front of the news media answering antagonistic questions. But he could definitely use some practice staying on message, displaying a little empathy and allaying concerns that he won’t support a peaceful transition of power if he loses. Biden will incessantly practice, and he’ll need the preparation.

The state debates will be an opportunity for lesser-known candidates to introduce themselves to voters. The 4th Congressional District debate could have a big impact on that race.

The race for the 4th District is being defined by attack ads targeting incumbent Democrat Ben McAdams and Republican challenger Burgess Owens. Will the attacks from the national political parties make a difference in this pandemic-influenced race?

Pignanelli: Without a Senate contest on the Utah ballot, activists on both sides of the Supreme Court controversy are directing resources to the 4th District contest. New Super PACs are popping up just for this purpose — guaranteeing even more nasty advertisements.

Current tactics are questionable. For decades, Utah endured a high rate of bankruptcy filings. So, personal attacks on Owens for his past indebtedness could be ineffective and antagonize many voters. Blemishing McAdams for voting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi 85% is disingenuous since most votes are technical. A similar analysis reveals McAdams and Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy are aligned almost 60%.

Webb: Attack ads work in many situations or candidates and parties wouldn’t waste their money on them. Republicans have been going for the sympathy vote with Owens, trying to make the case that everyone makes mistakes and Owens has risen above poverty, racism and his financial troubles to become a conservative star and live an exemplary life.

McAdams is fairly successfully fending off attacks that he’s a puppet of Nancy Pelosi. Former Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson did that effectively in many past elections. The question is whether this election is somehow different and McAdams is more vulnerable to a nationalization of the race.

The battle over the confirmation to replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg has begun. What are the implications for Utah politics?

Pignanelli: There is deep uncertainty how the Supreme Court issue will impact presidential and Senate elections. When hearings begin, the resulting emotions may be unprecedented. Such over the top nastiness can spill over into Utah elections, but no one can predict when and how.

Webb: I believe most Utah voters will support the president’s nomination. Even though only U.S. senators will vote on the nomination, support or opposition to the nominee will be a fair question to ask other candidates on the ballot. The Senate nomination hearings will be an epic battle generating massive publicity. Thus, it’s a legitimate election issue.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.