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Opinion: A user-friendly guide to the 2022 midterm elections

Will the Mar-a-Lago documents or another Biden gaffe cause more mayhem this election season? Get a recap on everything you need to know before you vote

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A voter puts a ballot into an official drop box.

Millie Wetterberg places her ballot into an official ballot drop box at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. The 2022 midterm elections could still hold surprises as voting season draws near.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Pignanelli & Webb: Labor Day weekend was the unofficial kickoff to the 2022 midterm election’s sprint down the straightaway. Americans and Utahns will be wooed and bombarded in the next 60 days by candidates and super PACs. Because this is an unusual midterm election, we offer a primer about what readers should watch for and consider.

External trends and perceptions. The conventional wisdom was that inflation and gas prices will drive electoral preferences this year. Statistically, both are dropping. But if by mid-October the perception persists that we are still in an inflationary recession, the impact will be felt, and it won’t be good for Democrats.

Voter instincts on crime, student debt forgiveness, cultural shifts and weather patterns/climate change could be huge factors nationally, but also in certain Utah contests.

The abortion initiative in Kansas this summer instructed politicos that extreme positions on the issue are not popular. So inflammatory rhetoric or lack of it, will also influence elections. Politicians and parties that overreach get punished. Out-of-control immigration at the southern border will also be an election issue.

Technical details. Utah voters and candidates need to remember that mail-in ballots will be sent in mid-October. Further, there is no straight ticket voting. Both measures allow for more fluidity by voters and a little less certainty by prognosticators.

The Utah U.S. senate race. Independent candidate Evan McMullin needs a coalition of Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans to win. It’s a difficult trick to pull off. He will need to readjust his focus to attract persuadable Republicans. Readers can expect an aggressive appeal by McMullin to this constituency. Of course, incumbent Sen. Mike Lee will be spending millions to remind Utah’s dominant Republicans that he is one, and McMullin is not.

Normally, a Utah Senate contest would receive little attention outside of the state. But McMullin’s fundraising and polling performances have captured the interest of observers across the country. Utah airwaves will be blitzed by national organizations from both sides. Much will depend on how well Lee nationalizes the race and convinces Republicans they need to reelect him to give Republicans a chance to win control of the Senate.

Regardless of the outcome, if McMullin exceeds expectations in the next two months, you may see this model of an independent candidate in elections elsewhere in the country, and more in Utah.

Salt Lake County Council. The state’s largest county is definitely purple, with a Democratic mayor and GOP-controlled council. So the matchup between incumbent Republican businessmen Richard Snelgrove and physician and former state lawmaker Suzanne Harrison will reveal which issues and positions drive the outcome. This will set the table for the 2024 battles.

Write-in contests. Yes, we are watching this Davis County legislative race. Rep. Steve Handy is a popular moderate Davis County Republican who has led legislative efforts on clean air, technology and other issues. So the Utah political world was shocked when he lost his convention battle to newcomer Trevor Lee. (Handy admits it was silly of him not to obtain signatures to obtain a position on the primary ballot.)

Late last month, Handy announced a write-in campaign for the general election. Normally such an effort would be readily dismissed. However, Handy is a well-known incumbent and is garnering support and financing from high-profile individuals and various organizations. And there isn’t a Democrat on the ballot.

This strange contest could be a true determinant of preferences by the suburban GOP. Handy is a moderate and Trevor Lee is a hardline conservative. Write-in campaigns are extremely difficult, so if Handy performs beyond expectations, expect to hear more about this race — nationally and locally.

Meanwhile, another significant write-in campaign could occur in far northern Utah. Republican Rep. Joel Ferry has been appointed director of the Department of Natural Resources, but Republicans are hoping his name can stay on the ballot so they can appoint a legislative replacement after the election. Democrats are seeking a court order to remove him from the ballot. Such a serious judicial action would leave only a Democratic candidate and possible GOP write-ins. 

State school board. Candidates now run as political party members. How they campaign will be instructive as to educational issues that will confront public education and the Legislature.

U.S. House of Representatives. The Republican performance metrics in all four Congressional districts suggest these races will be called early. The real contests for these candidates were the primary challenges. So how they campaign in the general election could be a strategy to diminish future interparty contests.

Utah Legislature. There are a handful of swing districts north of Utah County on the Wasatch Front. Often, these results can be predicted by the external forces of the election season. However, shrewd candidates of both political parties who focus hard on unique local issues can prevail.

The October surprise. No American election worth its salt can be complete without some bombshell in the weeks or days preceding the election. Heaven only knows what that will be in 2022. Revelations about the documents at the Trump residence or another awkward gaffe by Biden could change dynamics. The way the year has been trending, visits from aliens from outer space is probable. That might make a good closing message: “Vote for me to fight off the aliens!”

Most of all, please enjoy the ride.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. 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.