Analysis: What Utah House Seats are ‘In Play’ this Year?

Utah State Capitol 30What do Utah House Republican and Democratic leaders have in common?

Not much.

Well, they do see the same two House races as possible flips this election – they just see the flips in opposite directions. 

UtahPolicy talked with several current majority and minority leaders – who agreed to talk candidly if their names were not used – to see who the bosses are worried about in the 75 races, most of which have both a Republican and a Democratic candidate in play.

And this much is known:

Both sides agree on the top two races where one party could gain from the fall of the other party:

— House District 22, held by long-time incumbent Rep. Susan Duckworth, D-Magna.

— And House District 34, an open seat now that Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-West Valley, is not running again.

Anderson won re-election two years ago by just 493 votes. The district is changing, with more and more minorities moving into the area.

An open seat gives Democrats hope for a pick-up.

Democrat Karen Kwan, an associate professor at Salt Lake Community College, faces Republican Macade Jensen, a structural designer, in that contest.

Duckworth’s District 22 has been in the family for years – held by her husband before he had to step away several terms ago because of ill health.

Susan Duckworth won the seat in 2008 and has held it ever since.

Soundly Democrat for years – when most of Magna were employees of Kennecott Copper – District 22 sees new subdivisions springing up, with Republican-leaning young couples moving in.

Duckworth won re-election in 2014 by just 520 votes.

She is challenged this year by Republican Jamie White, a Realtor.

House Democrats are at historic low numbers, just 12 seats out of 75.

And House minority leaders tell UtahPolicy they started out targeting 16 races, most of those held by Republicans who Democrats believed vulnerable – at least at the start of 2016.

“A number of those have dropped away, we don’t see a path” to so many victories now, said one minority leader.

“But we’re still in more than half a dozen,” he added.

Three Salt Lake County districts were called for the Democratic candidates on Election Night 2014, only to see the Republicans win when all votes were counted at the canvas.

Democrats hope to win those three back this year, but the freshman Republicans have had two years to build their war chests and strengthen their loyal GOP constituencies.

The most vulnerable among them would appear to be House District 30, where Rep. Fred Cox, R-West Valley, won in the final count by just 47 votes.

But Cox was beaten in the county GOP convention by former West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder – whose family is well known in the area.

Republican leaders think Winder is a lock in his race against Democrat Frank Bedolla. But the seat has flopped back and forth between political parties in recent elections.

“Just how popular is Winder out there?” asked one House Democratic leader. “We really don’t know. He’s had his problems.”

As mayor, Winder was embarrassed when it was learned he had been writing pro-West Valley City articles for the Deseret News under an assumed name. Winder fessed up but was the brunt of jokes for a while.

One House GOP leader called Rep. Sophia DiCaro “a rising star” in the local Republican Party. But she won House District 31 by just 195 votes two years ago, taking out the long-time Democratic incumbent when final votes were counted.

“We think that district is in play, again,” said the Democratic leader.

DiCaro has raised an impressive $54,000 – a hefty sum for a Utah House race – so far.

That’s more than double of her Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Weight’s $22,000 – which is a goodly number for a challenger.

House District 44 went to Rep. Bruce Cutler, R-Murray, in an open-seat race two years ago by just 50 votes.

He faces Christine Passey, the 2014 Democratic candidate who saw victory Election Night two years ago only to fall in the final count. This should be a very close contest again. The winner may not be known until canvass about two weeks after next Tuesday.

Here are a few more Utah House races to watch for the night of Nov. 8 – as the Democrats try to claw back a few GOP seats the Republicans attempt to hold.

— House District 33. Incumbent Craig Hall, R-West Valley, won re-election by 833 votes in 2014.

But Democrats think they have a shot at him this year. 

Hall’s opponent is Peter Tomala.

West Valley City is the state’s second-largest municipality, and seeing a growing number of racial and ethnic minorities as residents.

— House District 53. Incumbent Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber, got out of the race early on when it appeared it could become a mud bath for the GOP nomination.

A moderate by Utah Republican House standards, Powell has since been named a judge to a state court.

The district was made a bit more moderate in the 2010 redistricting, taking in more areas around liberal-leaning Park City.

Morgan County Councilman Logan Wilde displaced long-time House member Mel Brown, R-Coalville, in a very close GOP primary (8 votes difference). Brown at first challenged the recount in the Utah Supreme Court, but losing on technical grounds gave up his court fight and will leave the Legislature.

“We really think we have a chance for the Powell seat,” said one Democratic leader. “It will depend on turnout” – can enough hotel/retail and ski resort workers be convinced to turn out and vote for Democratic challenger Rudy Kohler.

— Then there is House District 32, which has all kinds of wheels within wheels, GOP House leaders tell UtahPolicy.

The district is held by Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper. By all accounts, it should be solidly Republican, but Christensen has had some rather close races in the past.

This year he is being challenged by physician Suzanne Harrison, department chair of Anesthesiology at Riverton Hospital.

“Suzanne is working hard, walking the district,” says one Democratic leader.

But a House GOP leader says the race is tough for one big reason – money.

Harrison has raised an amazing $66,000 – not unheard of in a Utah House race, but close.

She has attracted some big Democratic donors, like Kem Gardner and Mike Weinholtz (who is running for governor this year). 

But she is also getting donations from some well-known Republicans, like former state Rep. Bryson Garbett ($1,000) and GOP legislative candidate J.P. Hughes ($500).

She has a natural doctors’ financial base, as well.

Christensen’s latest report (he doesn’t have his pre-final election report online) shows he’s raised $39,000 – which in a normal year would be enough to secure a victory.

Democrats held that seat a few years ago when they were winning eastside Salt Lake County House and Senate seats. But Sandy/Draper has held for Republicans in recent elections.

Finally, there is House District 69, headquartered in Price, Carbon County.

UtahPolicy’s story about District 69 is here.

Rep. Brad King, D-Price, faces Christine Watkins, who was in House Democratic leadership before she lost the seat four years ago, switched parties, and is now the GOP nominee.