Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Utah races to watch in the Trump/Clinton-free zone

Exerting strict self-discipline, for the second week in a row we are not going to comment on Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, her health, her emails, her “basket of deplorables,” his bromance with Putin, his taxes, his health, or even his hair. Instead, we write how political hacks are viewing Utah races of interest, and what to expect. You are now entering the Trump/Clinton-free zone.

The 4th Congressional District includes only a quarter of the state’s population, but all Utah eyes are watching the rematch between incumbent Republican Mia Love and Democratic challenger Doug Owens. Polls suggest a widening gap, but the campaigns are acting like it’s a horse race. What’s happening?

Pignanelli: "Politics is the art of controlling your environment" — Hunter S. Thompson

Those of us who watch television belong to a soon to be extinct demographic (our children refer to the massive glass and plastic box in the family room as the “cute antique”). Yet, TV ads do provide a peek into the campaign dynamics of the 4th District.

Owens standing in the field talking about his Mormon heritage works on several levels. He reminds baby boomer viewers of beloved father Congressman Wayne Owens, while references to his handcart pioneer ancestors appeal to an important category of voters.

Love’s ad offers an energetic pulse (reminding viewers of her personality) while providing endorsements from influential and average Utahns. Clearly, this is to reaffirm an image of responsiveness to constituents, and fend off "establishment" accusations leveled at every incumbent.

Ballots will be arriving in mailboxes soon, and so these campaigns have entered the next phase of “defining their opponent.” This explains the new entrant into the electronic warfare: the attack ad from Love against Owens. He will likely counterpunch very soon.

Since Utah is ignored in presidential campaigns, we doomed generations of television audiences are grateful for the feisty battle in the 4th Congressional District to offer some political entertainment on the tube.

Webb: This will be Utah’s closest major race, and both candidates are running hard. Owens came close two years ago, despite being outspent and having limited national resources. This time, he’s better funded, more experienced, and national Democrats are backing his campaign.

But Love is a better candidate this time as well. Her biggest weakness in 2014 was that despite her compelling personal story, she was viewed as a political lightweight without enough experience or policy chops to succeed in Congress. In her first term, she has kept her head down and worked hard, earning kudos for focusing on complex financial services issues.

And she’s taking nothing for granted. Thus, she has launched a pre-emptive attack ad, criticizing Owens for his involvement in the Legacy Parkway lawsuit that delayed the project and increased costs. Owens, of course, was just doing what lawyers do.

Owens has been running ads re-introducing himself to voters, establishing himself as a moderate Democrat with deep roots in Utah who embraces Utah values.

Expect this race to soon get uglier, with Owens responding to Love’s attack ads with some of his own. Love is ahead, but this race could be close.

Although often under the radar, legislative races are frequently the most energetic of contests. What political dynamics are playing out in targeted legislative races?

Pignanelli: Democrats have the lowest percentage of legislators in modern history, but that means the GOP has a heavy burden in defending all those seats. Democrat leaders are focusing resources on selected swing districts in Salt Lake and Weber Counties.

Democrats have a tradition of strong field operations in close races (they usually win voter turnout on Election Day) but tactics must be modified to reflect early mail-in balloting (where the GOP prevails).

Webb: Most legislators serve in safe districts, so Republicans will continue to dominate the Utah House and Senate after November. But a half-dozen or so swing districts exist that are being hotly contested. These races will come down to the quality of the candidates, how organized they are, and how hard they work. Democrats lost a few of these races two years ago by only a handful of votes.

Thus, Democrats are geared up for intense grass-roots work in targeted districts. They can’t really dent GOP domination, but they can have an impact in a few races.

What are some of the other races worth watching?

Pignanelli: The heated race for Salt Lake County Council At-Large between incumbent Richard Snelgrove and challenger Catherine Kanter is drawing interest. Snelgrove is a respected moderate Republican businessman, recently honored by the Utah Taxpayers Association. Democrat Kanter is offering spirited opposition, highlighting her career success as a lawyer and mother.

Webb: State School Board races are suddenly getting hot. The Utah Education Association is heavily engaged, and some legislative leaders and their business supporters say the union is trying to take control of the board.

A lot of issues are at play here, including public education governance, school choice, charter schools, education funding, teacher salaries, and laying the groundwork for partisan school board elections in 2018.

We shouldn’t be having these public education election battles. School board members should be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The State Board of Regents is an excellent model.