Exclusive: Democrat Jenny Wilson ‘taking a hard look’ at challenging Hatch in 2018

Jenny WilsonSalt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson tells UtahPolicy.com she’s giving serious thought to running for U.S. Senate in 2018.

Wilson says she will take a “hard look” at the race over the next month before deciding to launch her candidacy.

“I’ve become frustrated, as many people have, with the state of things in Washington,” she says. “It’s come to the point that we need change, a new generation of leadership there.”

If Wilson decides to run for Senate in 2018, it would be a bit of political symmetry in Utah. Her father, Ted Wilson, faced Hatch that year, losing to the freshman Republican 58-41%. Wilson was within striking distance of Hatch for much of that campaign until President Ronald Reagan visited Utah to campaign for Hatch, which helped propel him to a second-term in office.

In 2018, Hatch would be going for his 8th term in Washington. Hatch says he hasn’t decided yet, but all available data points to him launching another bid. At the end of his current term, Hatch would be 84 years old. Wilson says she respects everything that Hatch has been able to do for Utah, but it’s time for a change.

“I don’t deny the impact he’s had on Utah, but Washington needs to be fundamentally rebuilt,” she says. “We are in a very different place than earlier in Hatch’s career.”

Wilson currently is in her second term on the Salt Lake County Council, and previously worked as chief of staff to Utah Congressman Bill Orton. She doesn’t face re-election for her council seat until 2020.

She says her experience and accomplishments, especially those on the County Council would be an asset in Washington.

“I know how that city works. I’ve been at this a lot of years. A big part of my job is working across the aisle to find solutions every day. I’m required to work with Republicans to pass a budget. Why can’t they do this in Congress? It’s outrageous.”

The last time Utah Democrats won a statewide election, Bill Clinton was in the White House. More recently statewide elections have been borderline embarrassing for Democrats, with their nominees struggling to get more than 30% of the vote. Wilson understands that history is working against her, but she does see an opportunity in 2018.

“I would have a strong message about good government to share. I think people want to see Washington fixed and cooperation put above party affiliation.”

That’s a nice sentiment, for sure. But can she escape the Democratic albatross that opponents would eagerly try to hang around her neck?

“I don’t need a poll to tell me I poll below a Republican right now. I don’t run from my party affiliation, but I’ll stand up to it,” she says. “I don’t think Nancy Pelosi has all the right answers. I worked for Bill Orton, who was a conservative Democrat who worked hard for Utahns.”

If that statement strikes you as familiar, there’s a reason. It’s the same independent streak that served another Utah Democrat very well during his time in Washington – Jim Matheson. He also bucked his party time and again, which infuriated the left wing of Utah’s Democratic establishment, but was enough that Utahns kept returning him to office election after election.

When he was running for a 7th term in 2012, Hatch made a vow that it would be his last. Wilson says people may be starting to turn on Hatch because of that broken promise, which could be an opening for her.

“There are many Utahns saying it may be time for Orrin Hatch to move on, even those who voted for him,” she says. “I’m confident this will be an interesting national race with the longest serving Senator attempting to return or it will be an open seat.”

She says the extreme partisanship that has gripped Washington is the very thing that needs to end, and Hatch is a big part of that.

“Hatch says he shouldn’t take the blame for things that go wrong in D.C., but he’s very quick to take the credit for what goes right. Which is it? Look at the disarray this current president is creating. It’s time for a change and a different dialogue.”

Wilson says if another Democrat, like Matheson or Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams who wants to get into the race, she would gladly defer to them.

“The state would be better served to have a Democrat in the federal delegation. It’s time to put forward a Democrat who can work across party lines,” she said.

Wilson will spend the month of April talking with potential supporters and donors to see if a candidacy makes sense.