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Opinion: Utah’s primary elections are filled with intrigue

From Sen. Mike Lee’s reelection bid to local races in rural counties, voters face many interesting choices

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Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, meets with members of the Senate Minority Caucus at the Capitol in Salt Lake City.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, meets with members of the Senate Minority Caucus at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Pignanelli & Webb: The 2022 primary election contests are starting to sizzle in Utah and across the country. We’re watching to see who emerges as party nominees for the November general election.

In Utah, whether through the convention process or signature gathering, candidates are running hard in advance of the June 28 primary. While most of the drama is on the Republican side, both parties have interesting primaries to watch.

The primary election will provide hints about political trends in Utah and elsewhere. It will foreshadow the November general election and show which party has the most committed voters. Here are questions that the primaries might help answer:

In 2020, thousands of unaffiliated voters registered as Republicans to vote in the gubernatorial primary. With great interest in the Senate and congressional primaries, will this cross-voting repeat in 2022? Who might be helped or hurt? Will moderate challengers taking on conservative incumbents fare well? Conversely, will conservative challengers opposing moderate incumbents succeed? Is there anti-incumbent theme? With the state performing well, why so much grumpiness among Republicans?

We spotlight some of the races politicos are watching:

U.S Senate: The three-way contest for the GOP nomination between Sen. Mike Lee, Becky Edwards and Ally Isom is garnering attention. Although Lee is predicted to win, the question is the strength of his performance, which may have bearing on the race against independent (but endorsed by Democrats) Evan McMullin in the general election.

Freshman Congressman Blake Moore, perceived as a moderate, is facing interesting headwinds in the 1st District from Andrew Badger and Tina Cannon from the right wing of the party. Results will indicate whether moderate Republicans have a place at the Utah political table.

It’s Groundhog Day in the 3rd District as mainstream Republican Rep. John Curtis faces his perennial archconservative opponent Chris Herrod (which must be getting boring for these voters). Curtis is expected to win.

In the 2nd District, although incumbent Chris Stewart garnered more than 80% at convention, he remains opposed by attorney Erin Rider, a moderate. Similarly, Burgess Owens’ strong convention performance did not prevent a primary confrontation with Jake Hunsaker. (These results raise the question of why conventions are necessary.)

Republican legislative leaders also face primary battles: Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers (Cedar City) is challenged by Patrick Larson; Senate Majority Whip Ann Milner (Ogden) by Douglas Durbano; Appropriations Chair Jerry Stevenson (Layton) by Betty Young. These races are of intense interest to veteran observers because the incumbents are powerful lawmakers with deep roots in their communities. Upsets could signal a trend.

On the House side, prominent Republican attorney Rep. Kelly Miles (Ogden) faces Katy Hall; physician lawmaker Rep. Ray Ward (Bountiful) is contested by Lyle Mason. Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard (North Salt Lake) faces longtime archconservative activist Ronald Mortensen. Rep. Jeff Stenquist (Draper) must overcome a challenge by Carolyn Phippen, a well-known GOP operative. These races capture interest because the incumbents were successful in their legislative activities.

Some former legislators are attempting comebacks, including Val Potter (Logan) who hopes to unseat Rep. Mike Peterson. Rep. Susan Pulsipher (South Jordan) must overcome a challenge by Rich Cunningham, also campaigning to return to the Legislature.

In other interesting House GOP races, State School Board Chairman Mark Huntsman (Fillmore) is running against Bridger Bolinder. And former first lady of St. George Kristy Pike is facing Neil Walter.

Democrats have races too: Popular activist incumbent Sen. Derek Kitchen (Salt Lake City) is in a primary contest with Jennifer Plumb. The 36-year veteran of the Legislature, Gene Davis (Salt Lake City) is in the unprecedented situation of a primary against Nate Blouin. Holladay Sen. Jani Iwamoto is retiring. Her replacement will be the victor of the primary between current Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, a prosecuting attorney, and musician and youth advocate Deondra Brown.

We’re seeing some fascinating county contests: Amelia Powers Gardner captured national attention when she revitalized a dysfunctional Utah County Clerk’s office and was recognized for her performance. Later appointed to the county commission, she faces a primary with Renee Tribe. The other county commission seat also has a primary featuring incumbent Bill Lee and Brandon Gordon.

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt had a rough convention, garnering only 10% support. Opposed to the death penalty, this controversial prosecutor has his work cut out for him as he is facing his deputy, Adam Pomeroy, and also Jeff Gray.

Rural battles: Millard County has witnessed several controversial political initiatives. This is driving hot contests for county commission. Vicky Lyman is opposed by Evelyn Warnick, while incumbent Dean Draper faces two opponents, Trevor Johnson and Johnny Munoz.

In Beaver County, incumbent Commissioner Tammy Pearson is opposed by Chris Noble and Dawn Caldwell. Another incumbent, Mark Whitney, is challenged by Brandon Yardley.

It’s a long shot: Long-time mainstream Rep. Steven Handy (Layton) chose not to obtain signatures and was booted at the convention by strong conservative Trevor Lee. Handy is popular with constituents and may run a write in campaign — an always difficult path. This will be one to watch.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: frankp@xmission.com.