Frank R. Pignanelli and LaVarr Webb: The wild card in Utah political races — Trump

Media talking heads have sliced and diced the State of the Union speech. But questions remain how the speech and the unique chief executive who delivered it will impact our local elections. As quirky political nerds ourselves, we provide our perspectives. Utah campaign operatives are already planning how to deal with the Trump factor in this year's elections. How will Trump help or hinder Republicans and Democrats in Utah?

Pignanelli: "The distance between ‘controlled Trump’ and ‘unscripted Trump’ is greater than his predecessors.” — Frank Bruni

As locals know, the lake effect is an unpredictable weather phenomenon created by the Great Salt Lake. Similarly, the Donald Trump effect generates repeated unexpected challenges for all politicians.

Thus, both political parties need a risk assessment as to Trump — especially in Utah. LDS voter nervousness about Trump is reflected by the 46 percent he received in the 2016 election (lowest among red states). These concerns have not diminished. Candidates who snuggle close to the president will be fine, if there are no embarrassing revelations about Russia or other matters. But recent history suggests a different scenario is possible.

Democrats view Trump as a gift, but risk relying solely on animosity without detailing specific alternatives. Being mad is not enough. There's plenty of anger across the political spectrum. Democrats who understand how Trump got elected, and model campaigns accordingly, have a better chance.

Yet Utah candidates in both parties hazard alienating strident activists if they are deemed too bipartisan and not nasty enough. Like the lake effect, Trump will make the political weather unpredictable and interesting.

Webb: If, over the next nine months, Trump sticks to the policy themes and demeanor exhibited in his muscular, issue-oriented and sometimes-touching speech, Republicans will benefit from the Trump phenomenon. But it’s not likely Trump will exercise such discipline. Trump is Trump, and I will be surprised if he avoids petty scuffles, brash statements and vulgar comments. He usually quickly diverts attention even from his real successes.

So, as Republicans run in Utah, they will make the distinction between the personality and the policies. They will say they like Trump’s conservative policies and the GOP successes in 2017, but they will distance themselves from his erraticism and antics.

Most Democrats running for Congress will try to avoid the Trump factor altogether, and when questioned will focus on Trump’s personality foibles while downplaying the strong economy, tax reform and low unemployment. They will have to persuade voters that sending them to Congress to help the Democrats take over the House will be good for the country. Will the recent statement by the LDS Church that calls “upon our national leaders to create policies that provide hope and opportunities for … Dreamers” affect campaign strategy this year?

Pignanelli: I am so grateful for this necessary and appropriate proclamation. The true issue surrounding Dreamers is about families, hope and compassion. Unfortunately, the State of the Union address lumped these innocents with criminal elements. LDS leaders are providing the thoughtful approach.

Equally important, this statement challenges all federal officials. Republicans must address, and not ignore, Dreamers. The same holds true for Democrats, who cannot hold out for the perfect "clean" bill. They may have to make the sacrifice and swallow a bitter nasty pill that impacts future immigrants. The church, ever practical, is saying we must help those in immediate need.

Webb: Utah members of Congress want to protect the Dreamers and enact balanced immigration policies. As I’ve said previously, Republicans should compromise with Democrats on immigration, take care of the Dreamers, get some money for Trump’s wall, provide generous provisions for needed immigrant workers and declare a big victory. Approving comprehensive immigration reform would be an achievement that has eluded presidents and congresses for decades. Combined with other GOP policy successes, it would be an immense triumph leading to more Republican victories in November. If Trump was on the ballot in 2018, would he be re-elected?

Pignanelli: A leftist political analytical firm recently analyzed the Virginia gubernatorial election. They “nationalized” the results for a hypothetical presidential election and determined the Democrat would win the popular vote and the Republican would still win the Electoral College. Trump’s approval ratings are abysmal, but disgust with Washington, D.C., remains strong. So it's a function of competition and the economy. If the former is weak and the latter is strong, Trump could win again.

Webb: A liberal Washington Post commentator who dislikes Trump recently said if Trump’s persona for the last year matched his State of the Union speech, even with the same policy agenda, his approval rating today would be 10 points higher.

So Trump could win if he stays focused on policy, avoids trivial disputes, doesn’t unnecessarily offend people, call names or make vulgar references. But that’s a big if.

Democrats must also find a candidate who can beat him. Who’s that? Nobody in sight.