It’s election season. On Oct. 18, ballots will be mailed to Utah’s registered voters — Election Day is Nov. 8, and by January, a few new faces will be sworn in to help lead the Beehive State.
All eyes are on the U.S. House and Senate races, especially the high-profile matchup between incumbent GOP Sen. Mike Lee and Evan McMullin, an independent backed by the Utah Democratic Party.
At the local and state level, interest isn’t as palpable as recent years, says Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen, who after 32 years in office did not run for reelection this year.
With midterm turnout typically lower than presidential elections and no voter referendums on the ballot, she said the county hasn’t seen a noticeable uptick in voter registration.
In 2018, with issues like voting boundaries and medical marijuana on the ballot, Salt Lake County had an 82% turnout, incredibly high for a midterm. And in 2020, the county saw a whopping 90% voter turnout for the presidential election.
“It was excellent,” Swensen said. “I’m always anxious to see that kind of repeat, we want to see more people engaged and participating. But so far, it has not been like that.”
Even though the close race between Lee and McMullin is dominating the news, a number of important local races, including those for the Utah House and Senate, county councils and school boards, will also be on the ballot this year.
“When you look at the Legislature, that’s where a lot of the important local decisions happen ... this is where local government really impacts you,” said Davis County Clerk Curtis Koch, who told the Deseret News the county is expecting a 65% to 70% voter turnout this year.
From a longtime Republican representative trying to keep his political career alive via a write-in campaign, to the first Navajo woman to run for the Utah Legislature, here are some of the races we’re watching.
A few newcomers representing Salt Lake County
Utah’s most populated county will see some new representation during this year’s legislative session.
Senate District 9: Incumbent Sen. Derek Kitchen was ousted in a tight primary race by Jen Plumb, a doctor at Primary Children’s Hospital who for years has run Utah Naloxone, an advocacy organization that distributes and provides training for opioid reversal drugs.
Plumb will face off against Vance Hansen, a write-in candidate who ran for the Salt Lake County Council in 2021.
Senate District 13: Gene Davis, a Democrat who represented parts of Salt Lake County for over 30 years, lost his reelection to political newcomer Nate Blouin this spring. Davis has since been suspended from party events since August following sexual harassment allegations from a former intern.
A renewable energy advocate, Blouin now faces off against Republican Roger Stout.
Senate District 14: The district encompassing much of Millcreek, Holladay and Murray will have a new senator this year, although they might not be new to the Utah Legislature itself.
That’s because Rep. Stephanie Pitcher, D-Salt Lake City, vacated her seat in the House to try her luck in the Senate.
A deputy district attorney and lawmaker since 2019, Pitcher will face off against Republican Dan Sorensen, who owns Granite Insurance Agency in Murray, and United Utah candidate Dennis Roach.
House District 32: With Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy, deciding to run for Salt Lake County Council, a number of candidates stepped in hoping fill the void.
Three remain: Sahara Hayes, a Millcreek County Council member and the Democratic nominee; Brittany Karzen, a Republican who currently works for the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office; and United Utah candidate Adam Bean.
Salt Lake County races to watch
At the local level, there are a few races this year that could shake things up for Salt Lake County.
Salt Lake County Council: Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy, is challenging council member Richard Snelgrove for one of the county’s two at-large seats.
Snelgrove, a Republican, was reelected to the at-large seat in 2016 and is one of six GOP members on the county’s nine-person council.
His colleague, three-term council member Steve Debry, was ousted in the primary by Riverton City Council member Sheldon Stewart. Stewart does not face an opponent this November.
Salt Lake County Clerk: After decades in the chair, Swensen is stepping down.
She’s tapped Chief Deputy Clerk Lannie Chapman as her replacement — however, Chapman faces a challenge in Republican Goud Maragani.
Maragani has faced recent criticism for old social media posts that claim Democrats stole the 2020 election and has expressed skepticism over mail-in ballots — a system that the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office has endorsed for nearly a decade.
“In Goud’s opinion, the 2020 election was not stolen. Trump lost and Biden won,” reads Maragani’s website. “Goud has reviewed how the Salt Lake County Clerk’s Office ran the 2020 election. The review did not show fraud, but it did find concerning shortcomings.”
Davis County drama
Don’t expect many surprises in Davis County this year, home to Republican strongholds including districts held by Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson.
However, the race for House District 16 could be interesting.
Rep. Steve Handy has represented the Layton area for over 10 years, but in March during caucus night, he fell shy of the votes needed to qualifying for the primary.
Instead, Republicans gave the nod to Trevor Lee, a staunch conservative with a background in business management and finance — Handy is now attempting a write-in campaign, a daunting challenge that has only succeeded once in the Utah Legislature.
Lee’s hardline views have come to light recently, stemming from an anonymous Twitter account where he called transgender people a derogatory term and said Brigham Young University was a “progressive cesspool” that “needs to be cleansed,” according to reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune.
In response news reports about some of Lee’s comments, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, highlighted a possible write-in campaign from Handy in April. Handy also won a recent endorsement from former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.
The first Navajo woman to run for statewide office
Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, has a Democratic challenger this year in Davina Smith, the first Navajo woman to run for the Utah House.
The race is not without controversy, as Lyman filed a formal complaint with Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson’s office in March, alleging Smith does not actually live in the district.
Originally from Monument Valley, Smith looks to become the latest Native American politician to win voter approval in southeast Utah, following Ken Maryboy, who won his bid for San Juan County Commission in 2018. The election marked a historic shift, giving Navajo Democrats a majority on the traditionally white, Republican commission.
Although Native Americans make up the majority of San Juan County’s population, public land issues often galvanize voters. Lyman, himself a former county commissioner, was elected to the House in 2019 several years after his role in a controversial protest in Recapture Canyon, home to Native American cliff dwellings. A jury found Lyman guilty of trespassing, he was later pardoned by former President Donald Trump.
Correction: An earlier version of this story characterized a tweet by Sen. Todd Weiler about Rep. Steve Handy’s potential write-in campaign as an endorsement. Weiler clarified on Monday that his tweet was not an official endorsement.