Frank R. Pignanelli and LaVarr Webb: Possible strategies employed by some of Utah's top chess masters

Chess is a lot trickier than simply moving 16 pieces around a board. To win, competitors must be good strategists, anticipating a competitor’s reactions and moves. Impulsive action guarantees a loss. As in chess, so in politics. We review possible strategies employed by some of Utah's top chess masters.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams surprised the Utah political scene by announcing he’s "seriously considering" a 2018 run in the Fourth Congressional District, currently held by Congresswoman Mia Love. Is he sincere, or is this a chess maneuver with a furtive goal?

Pignanelli: "In life, as in chess, forethought wins.” — Charles Buxton. Dandruff flakes were flying as politicos frantically scratched their heads over this unexpected development. All agree the popular, creative and successful mayor would be a formidable candidate in this or any race.

But in the last 70 years, only two Utah Democrats knocked off a Republican incumbent in a federal election (Frank Moss in 1958, Wayne Owens in 1972). Experts classify the Fourth District as solid GOP. Love won by a 13-point margin in 2016, including support from a chunk of Democrats. She is a ferocious campaigner who is substantive and charismatic. Utah leaders respect Love’s engaged membership in the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees a crucial element in the state economy. To overcome these obstacles, McAdams would need to undertake an intense negative campaign, thereby blemishing his well-deserved reputation as a bipartisan problem-solver.

Why this move by McAdams? Many insiders believe Love will run for the Senate, and McAdams’ announcement automatically places him as the front runner to fill the vacancy. Regardless, inevitable polls will broadcast his strengths (and weaknesses) and media talk of his potential candidacy will last for months. All this guarantees extra relevancy and attention for a possible statewide race in 2020, without filing for office in 2018. Castling is a chess move to realign key pieces, which McAdams just performed on the political chessboard.

Webb: My feeble IQ is better suited to checkers (or maybe Yahtzee) than chess, but I believe McAdams is seriously interested in this race. There aren’t many big-time political opportunities like this for an ambitious young Utah Democrat — even one who is moderate, competent and well-liked.

McAdams is mentioned frequently (by the “great mentioners”) as a 2020 gubernatorial prospect, but the numbers look daunting, if not impossible, for him to win statewide. Running as an independent or third-party candidate wouldn’t help.

McAdams' best chance would be for a moderate Republican to pick him up as a lieutenant governor running mate, creating a bipartisan ticket. With the right Republican at the top of the ticket, the combination might be formidable.

A campaign against Love would be very tough. It would, unfortunately, quickly degenerate into a very nasty race, with national Democrats and Republicans jumping in with an onslaught of personal attacks and negative advertising.

This may be a chess move that establishes McAdams as seriously interested in higher office, but running comes at a cost. However, if he does run and loses, he’s still county mayor for two years.

Personally, I think McAdams can do more for Utah as county mayor than as a minority Democrat among 534 other members of a dysfunctional Congress.

World Trade Center Utah President (and former gubernatorial chief of staff) Derek Miller has been open about his intent to run for the U.S. Senate in 2018. Yet, he recently penned an op-ed almost begging Mitt Romney to run for the seat. What is this all about?

Pignanelli: A Romney candidacy to replace the retiring Orrin Hatch has a predictable outcome. So Miller is covering his bets by aligning himself with Romney, with the hope for a return of the favor.

Webb: Not much intrigue exists here. Miller certainly wanted to run, but the combination of Hatch freezing the field for so long, and a new volunteer church calling made 2018 the wrong year. The cynics among us could speculate that Miller (and other young prospects) support Romney, in part, because Romney is likely to monopolize the seat for only six or 12 years — not 42 like Hatch.

Many political observers and even friends of Hatch believe he will not run again in 2018. Yet he is fundraising, sending out literature and holding town hall meetings. What’s the point of these chess moves?

Pignanelli: Hatch, the ultimate chess master, has been making a series of moves, while proclaiming he may not finish the game. Consequently, potential contenders are sidelined as he continues to gather financial and political strength. Come December or January, Hatch will announce his candidacy. Will he whisper "Checkmate”?

Webb: Acting like a candidate has kept competitors far at bay, which suits Hatch if he runs, and suits Romney, his favored replacement, if he doesn’t run (which I expect). Either way, Hatch wins.