SALT LAKE CITY — Despite the efforts of tax reform opponents, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, has a healthy lead against United Utah Party Candidate Ammon Gruwell for the District 15 House seat, with nearly 77% of the vote to Gruwell’s 23%, according to early results Tuesday.
The race between Gruwell and Wilson, one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, was among the legislative races spiced up this year by the debate around tax reform — with tax reform opposers financially backing Gruwell, hoping to create an upset in a district that has long supported Wilson.
Gruwell, a third-party candidate, knew it was a long shot. But, as he told the Deseret News last month, he considered it an important battle to fight, saying Wilson has seemed to “coast to reelection” for years and “should be just as accountable to his constituents as any member of the Legislature.” Gruwell said he ran because he “felt like the Utah Legislature wasn’t listening to voters anymore.”
As a member of the United Utah Party, which is based on moving away from a two-party system and partisanship, Gruwell hoped to attract moderate voters from both the left and right. While Gruwell said he was happy to see the support, he conceded Tuesday evening it wasn’t enough.
“I knew from the very beginning this would be an uphill climb, but I know it was worth the effort to give people a real choice,” he said, adding that it was a “huge barrier to overcome not having an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ next to my name.”
Wilson, who won reelection in 2018 with nearly 77% of the vote, didn’t immediately return a request for comment Tuesday night. In an earlier interview, he welcomed the competition, but noted in an interview with the Deseret News last month he’s had “a lot of support” in his conservative district over the last 10 years.
Wilson disputes the notion that legislators weren’t listening to their constituents when it came to adjustments to voter propositions or the passage of the tax reform bill. He accused tax reform opponents of spreading “misleading” information about the package, which was designed to address what state leaders called a “structural imbalance” between education and general funds. If it had remained intact, Utahns would have paid less in income tax but more in sales tax on food, gas and some services.
The group opposed to the tax reform package drummed up enough signatures to put it on the ballot, leading lawmakers to repeal the package in a special session. That opposition group foiled what Wilson said was “the second-largest overall tax cut in state history.”
That group hasn’t forgotten which lawmakers supported the reform package, and it’s not just Gruwell they’ve thrown their support behind to attempt to unseat those legislators.
The group already helped unseat at least one lawmaker: Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, who sponsored the tax reform legislation. Republican Chris Wilson beat Hillyard in the GOP primary. Early results Tuesday showed Wilson had over 70% of the vote to Democrat Nancy Huntly’s over 29% for the Senate District 25 seat.
House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, who helped push the tax reform package, is also facing a United Utah candidate, Shawn Ferriola for the District 12 seat. But Schultz had a healthy lead, with over 75% of the vote to Ferriola’s nearly 25%.
- Utah first lady Jeanette Herbert, left, and Gov. Gary Herbert arrive at a Republican election night event at the Utah Association of Realtors building in Sandy on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
- Derek Brown, Utah Republican Party chairman, talks to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, at a Republican election night event at the Utah Association of Realtors building in Sandy on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
- State Auditor John Dougall, left, talks to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, at a Republican election night event at the Utah Association of Realtors building in Sandy on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
- Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, left, talks to Derek Brown, Utah Republican Party chairman, at a Republican election night event at the Utah Association of Realtors building in Sandy on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
- Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, second from left, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, front, arrive at an election night event for Republican candidates in at the Utah Association of Realtors building in Sandy on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
- Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown, left, Speaker of the House Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, Chris Coombs, political director for the Utah Republican Party, and Mike Bird, the party’s treasurer, look at results during an election night event for Republican candidates in at the Utah Association of Realtors building in Sandy on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
- Abby Evans, Utah Republican Party data director, ties balloons at a Republican election night event at the Utah Association of Realtors building in Sandy on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Kendra Seeley, Utah Republican Party secretary, is on the left. Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Early wins for Democrats
In total, 90 of Utah’s legislative races are up for election: all 75 House seats and 15 Senate seats.
Early election night results included what could be some victories for Democrats in the House, where at least four Democratic candidates were in the lead to pick up some previously Republican seats.
In House District 39, Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, was at risk of losing his seat, trailing with 48% of the vote to Democrat Lynette Wendel’s nearly 52%.
There was also an upset in House District 38, where Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, was trailing with 46% of the vote to Democrat Ashlee Matthews’ nearly 54%. Just 118 votes separated Hutchings from his Democratic opponent in 2018.
Democrats are also on track to snag a seat in House District 45, where Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, was trailing behind Democrat Wendy Davis, 53% to 47%.
In House District 54, where Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber City, didn’t run for reelection, Democrat Meaghan Miller earlier on election night had over 72% of the vote to Republican Mike Kohler’s 27%. But after more ballots posted throughout the night, the race flipped in a big way. As of Wednesday morning, Kohler was ahead with nearly 55% of the vote to Miller’s 45%.
There are some nail biters, too, where Republicans are hanging on by a thread.
In House District 49, Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, had just over 50% of the vote, narrowly leading Democrat Siamak Khadjenoury, who had over 49% of the vote.
Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, is also in danger of losing his House District 33 seat, leading only with 51% of the vote to Democrat Fatima Dirie’s nearly 49%.
Margins are thin in House District 43, where Republican Rep. Cheryl Acton, West Jordan, had just over 50% of the vote to Democrat Diane Lewis’ 45%. United Utah candidate Jefferson Bardin’s got only 4.5%. In 2018, Acton won by 397 votes against her Democratic challenger.
In House District 8, Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, had nearly 54% of the vote to Democrat Oscar Landon Mata’s 46% for the District 8 House seat. In 2018, Waldrip, a Republican, won against his Democratic challenger by only 214 votes.
Some incumbents lost their seats early on. Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan, was unseated by District 3 voters in the GOP primary. Republican Mike Petersen had nearly 73% of the vote Tuesday to Democrat Holly Gunther’s 27% to replace him.
Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, was also unseated from his District 60 seat at the GOP convention. To replace him, Republican Nelson Abbott had 73% of the vote to United Utah candidate Christine Heath’s nearly 23%. Independent American candidate Tommy Williams had nearly 5% of the vote.
In the Senate, Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, vacated her seat to run as Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox’s running mate in his bid to be Utah’s next governor. Rep. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, has nearly 77% of the vote to United Utah candidate Emily Bergeson’s 23% to take the Senate District 7 seat.
Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, didn’t file for reelection, leaving his Senate District 19 seat up for grabs. Republican John Johnson is in the lead to replace him, with 53% to Democrat Katy Owens’ 47%
For Sen. Ralph Okerlund’s vacant District 24 seat, Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, has nearly 91% of the vote to take his place in the Senate, up against Independent American candidate Warren Rogers’ 9%.