The long-term results of last week’s Utah House speaker’s contest could be felt for 10 years, maybe longer.
That’s because new speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, will be a major player in the redrawing not only of state House and Senate districts, but Utah’s U.S. House districts as well.
As you may recall, an effort to have Utahns vote on creating an independent redistricting commission failed this past spring – the citizen initiative petition did not get the required number of voter signatures and so was not on the Nov. 2 ballot.
That means the GOP-controlled Utah House and Senate will draw up redistricting plans for the 75 state House seats, 29 Senate seats and what’s expected to be four U.S. House seats unaided – some may say restricted – by such a commission’s recommendations.
Utah barely missed getting a fourth seat in the 2000 Census. (The failed effort went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided not to count LDS missionaries as Utah residents for the Census count.)
But Utah is all but assured to get a fourth seat in the 2010 Census.
That means a serious re-carving of the current three-seat lines.
Current Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, is reported to have his eyes on a run for the U.S. House, if a southern Utah based district were created. Clark lost to Lockhart last Thursday night for the speaker’s post for the next two years.
That means Clark will not have the speaker’s power-base when the new four-seat U.S. House plan is drafted and passed.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, also lost in his bid to become assistant majority whip in the state Senate. And Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, lost his run for House GOP leadership, as well.
Thus, southern Utah is blanked out of powerful leadership positions as the redistricting process goes forward.
Several months ago, Clark suggested that it might be a good idea to break Salt Lake County into all four districts. That was the argument back in 2001 when GOP lawmakers pushed the 2nd Congressional District – which was all in eastern Salt Lake County – out into eastern and southern Utah.
Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, was a freshman back then. And in the 2002 election, Matheson barely held on to his seat by less than 1 percentage point.
Matheson continued to work hard, raise a lot of campaign cash, and got to know his southern Utah constituents.
Even though Matheson has never carried Washington or Iron counties in his re-elections in the large 2nd District, he won re-election ever since.
And, despite the fact that Matheson has worked closely with GOP members of the Utah congressional delegation on a number of issues, Utah Republican Party leaders are still desperate to get him out of office.
The 2011 redistricting is their chance, again, to redraw a 2nd District that is even more politically hostile to Matheson.
Or, some Republicans argue, is it better to just draw a mostly-Democratic U.S. House seat – one that would include all of Salt Lake City and parts of maybe Tooele and Summit counties to grab a few more Democrats and progressive independents – and make the other three districts very solidly Republican?
If national U.S. House Republicans were more secure in their majorities, that second option may be looked at.
But even though Republicans took 60 U.S. House seats away from Democrats in the 2010 elections, the U.S. House is still on a tipping point. And good Democratic years in 2012 or through 2012-2020 could mean that one Utah House seat may mean the difference in control of the U.S. House.
With so much at stake, it’s hard to believe that Utah Republicans – always a bit arrogant because of their political dominance here – wouldn’t just say to heck with Democrats and independents and carve out a 2nd District that is even more Republican than Matheson’s is now.
Matheson has to win the eastern Salt Lake County portion of the 2nd District by 60 percent or more of the vote. And he needs a bunch of independents and moderate Republicans to accomplish that.
To get a southern Utah district that has enough population to meet equal representation in the four U.S. House seats here, one would have to take much of southern Utah – and parts of some large-population counties as well, like Utah County.
Clark and other southern Utah lawmakers could perhaps have made that happen without getting Matheson, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, or some other power Utah County legislator interested in Congress in that southern seat.
But with Clark’s loss in the speaker’s race, that’s less likely.
Already some conservative legislators are sharpening their political knives and trying to look congressional. Just take a peak at Rep. Steve Sandstrom’s new videos on his web site. The Orem conservative – he’s introducing an Arizona-like illegal immigration bill in the 2011 general session – clearly has his sites higher than the Legislature.
And Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, is a Tea Party guy through and through. A new U.S. House seat headquartered in southern Salt Lake County that kept him out of Matheson’s district would suit him just fine.
Wimmer and Sandstrom were strong backers of Lockhart’s speaker’s run.
Chaffetz and U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Brigham City, a former Utah House speaker himself, will have some input in the U.S. House carvings.
But former U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen, who served in the 1st Congressional District for more than 20 years, so disliked how the Utah Legislature – controlled by his own Republican Party – redrew his 1st District in 1991 and 2001 that Hansen was one of the main supporters on the failed independent redistricting commission petition.
So, don’t expect Republicans in the Utah House and Senate to please their own incumbent U.S. House members much.
Of course, Chaffetz may not be caring about the redistricting – he could be running for governor or the U.S. Senate in 2012. But Bishop is expected to stay put in his 1st District and, like Hansen, Bishop not like it much if GOP legislators, in trying to get more Republicans in the 2nd District, push the 1st District more into Salt Lake City’s west side – very Democratic.
Contacted Friday, Clark, understandably, said he has no thoughts now of higher office in 2012. “After what happened Thursday night – I was shocked by the outcome – I really haven’t thought about” redistricting and a future congressional challenge.
Still, Clark has $72,000 left over in his state campaign account, a nice starting point for a congressional run, should he chose later to do so.
Of course, not being speaker means he can’t raise money like he could with that powerful position. But Clark is still well known, especially in the business and health care communities, and respected.
The question remains, what will be the political landscape in the 2012 state GOP convention? More hard-core conservatives? More Tea Partiers?
If there is no southern Utah U.S. House seat, a run for Congress from so far away from Wasatch Front counties will be tough for any candidate.