Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Discussing the race for president, Utah's governor and legislative candidates

The race is on! Utah’s candidate filing deadline has passed, and hundreds of hopefuls have filed for offices up and down the ballot. That, combined with the bizarre national political scene, gives us plenty to pontificate about.

Republican leaders terrified about having Donald Trump at the top of the November ballot are developing a "Plan T" to protect local candidates from his destructive coattails. Is this really a problem and can anything be done?

Pignanelli: "Donald Trump, and everything surrounding him, is preventing the GOP from talking about Hillary Clinton's record. That is what's so terrible about Trump."--Mary Kissel, Wall Street Journal. Combatant nations in World War I believed chemical gases could expeditiously eliminate enemies. But these weapons were unreliable, unpredictable and caused problems for the aggressors — especially when the wind changed. Trump — the mustard gas of the 2016 elections — is equally erratic and the impact of his volatile supporters in other races is a mystery.

Conventional thinking suggests a Trump nomination dampens traditional Republican enthusiasm to vote, but invigorates left-wing Utahns to the polls. Additionally, blue-collar conservative Democrats are behind Trump’s successes. Their proclivities in local elections, or turnout if Trump is denied the nomination, are unknown.

The dynamic of the Bernie Sanders movement cannot be ignored. What happens to the Vermont socialist at the Democratic Convention could be another factor in November.

Trump is a weapon that will be used on behalf, and against, every candidate seeking election in 2016. Savvy campaign operatives will develop several strategies to benefit from, while simultaneously defending against, the Trump (and Sanders) variables. Unfortunately, no one knows which tactic will be effective until actually utilized. Keep the gas masks handy.

Webb: All predictions and conventional wisdom have been upended in this race, so no one really knows how a Trump nomination might affect down-ballot races. But I expect Trump hurts other Republicans. GOP leaders will do their best to “localize” the races so voters focus on specific issues, especially state and local issues, instead of the presidential race. But even in Utah, where Trump is very unpopular, there will be no good answer when candidates are asked, “Do you support your party’s presidential candidate? Do you support his positions on issues?” Candidates won’t want to offend Trump supporters, but they also won’t want to alienate voters who just can’t stand Trump.

The best they can say is, “Well, he’s our party’s nominee. I don’t agree with him on some issues. But we’re going to educate him and use his strength to get important things done.”

The gubernatorial race is shaping up to be an interesting event. Gov. Gary Herbert faces both Republican and Democratic challengers. Will this contest stay heated through November, or does the governor run the table and stay far ahead of opponents?

Pignanelli: Prominent businessman Jonathan Johnson is offering a spirited challenge to Gov. Herbert. The Democratic candidates, Michael Weinholtz and Vaughn R Cook are also successful businessmen without political records. So expect plenty of “anti-establishment” and “career politician” jibes. Normally, Herbert's high approval ratings and popularity would be a solid defense against these attacks. But this Trumpian year offers unique opportunities to “non-establishment” contenders. However, Herbert is well known for taking nothing for granted and will respond with an aggressive campaign until election day.

Webb: By all conventional measures (high approval ratings, strong economy), Herbert is about as safe as a politician can be as he seeks his second full term. But in this unpredictable political year, overconfidence would be a big mistake.

Joint appearances and debates already show Herbert will come under heavy fire from the left and the right. The convention fight could be tough. Restive voters won’t want to hear just that Utah is doing well. They’ll want candidates to articulate their visions for the future, how they will boost the state to the next level and bring all Utahns along for the ride.

Some observers are complaining that too many legislative incumbents have gone unchallenged by the opposing party. Is this a legitimate complaint?

Pignanelli: As a veteran of many tough campaigns, the rare blessing of the free ride was warmly appreciated. It is nonsense to expect any political party — regardless of size or stature — to fill every race. Shrewd activists target resources where a reasonable opportunity to defend or capture a seat exists. Sacrificial lamb candidates, promised assistance that never materializes, usually become embittered and resentful.

Webb: Partisans accuse Republicans of gerrymandering legislative district boundaries to create safe districts where the opposing party can’t even field a candidate. The truth is, no one needs to gerrymander to produce those results. Utah is a lop-sided Republican state and it’s hard to produce more than a handful of competitive districts without creating really weird boundaries.

Certainly, a few more competitive districts could be created. But doing so might dilute Democratic strength in existing districts. Democrats dominate Salt Lake City because that’s the way citizens vote. Republicans dominate the rest of the state for the same reason. That’s how politics works.