Analysis: Only two Senate seats at risk of flipping this election year

Unlike Utah House legislative races this year, where half a dozen seats could change hands between the majority Republicans and minority Democrats, in the state Senate there are really only two races that could flip this year — one going from Republican to Democrat, the other Democratic to Republican.


But an analysis shows even those two races may not be close — one is a rematch of a mid-term contest in 2018, the other an entrenched GOP incumbent who has fought off Democratic challengers many times before.

Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, in Salt Lake County’s District 6, was a long-time House member who stepped up to the Senate in 2012, winning re-election easily in 2016, 56.4 percent to 37 percent over the Democratic challenger, with a third-party candidate in the final election as well.

It was an impressive 6,643-vote victory for Harper, who might be considered a conservative in a Taylorsville/West Valley/West Jordan district that is trending more moderate these days.

The other race sees Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, in a rematch with former GOP Sen. Brian Zehnder, whom Riebe beat in a special, mid-term election in 2018.

Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, said: “This is truly the only swing district” up in this year’s Senate elections. He sees Harper as safe this year.
Republicans hold a 23-6 supermajority in the Senate, with half of the seats up every two years, the Senate having four-year terms.

Outside of those two races, there some buzz over the open Weber County-based District 19 seat of retiring Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden.

There you have John Johnson, the Republican, up against Democrat Katy Owens.

While an open seat, Johnson would seem to have the advantage — the district is headquartered in the Ogden area, but stretches out to Summit County and the outskirts of Park City.

Johnson is from Ogden while Owens is from the Park City-area, a liberal enclave, true, but by far not the majority of voters in Senate District 19.

Johnson had an active primary, which he won. He’s basically self-funding his race, giving $52,000 out of the $56,000 raised.

Owens has a good Utah political name, but has raised only $17,000, has spent $4,000 and has but $13,000 cash. Johnson has only $9,000 cash, but it is clear he can spend a lot more of his own money on the race.

Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, said Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, will be OK this year, as will Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake, who seeks re-election in her very Democratic Salt Lake City district.

“We are looking at two races” which Mayne believes can be pick-ups for Democrats — Harper and the open Christensen seat.

It’s always tougher for the minority Democrats in the Utah House and Senate to raise money, but the Democrat’s Senate PAC has around $57,000 currently and Mayne says they are giving money to the incumbents and to the Democratic challengers in Harper’s and Christensen’s districts.

“We have other good candidates” in some Senate GOP incumbent races this year, says Mayne. But those two are the minority’s targets for pickups, as well as defending Riebe’s eastside Salt Lake County seat.

In fact, Democrats don’t even have candidates in seven of the incumbent GOP Senate contests this year.

Zehnder was appointed to the District 8 seat when former GOP Sen. Brian Shiozawa, a medical doctor, resigned to take a job with the federal Health Department.

The southern eastside county district has gone back and forth over several decades between the political parties, but the moderate Shiozawa seemed to have it locked up before Zehnder was appointed by district GOP delegates, then fell to Riebe in the 2018 general election.

Now Zehnder is back again, trying to regain his seat.

However, Riebe beat him two years ago — in what was considered a Blue Wave in Salt Lake County — rather easily, 55.8 percent to 41.7 percent, or by 5,893 votes, 23,221 votes for Riebe to 17,328 votes for Zehnder.

That, of course, was an off-year election, no presidential contest in Utah, no gubernatorial contest, either. And a number of initiative proposals were on the ballot that brought out Democrats to vote.

While the East Bench of the district is usually where the senators come from, the district drops down all the way to Murray and Midvale, picking up Democratic areas.
Zehnder, a doctor, outspent Riebe, $196,158 to $72,314, two years ago, loaning his campaign around $46,000 himself. He later paid himself back $20,000, for a net self-contribution of $26,000.

Still, Zehnder didn’t fare well, considering that in 2016 Shiozawa beat his Democratic challenger 57.4 percent to 42.76 percent.

Riebe was able to almost switch those numbers just two years later over the Republican Zehnder.

Zehnder served in the Senate during 2018, and he made some friends.

The Senate’s Republican PAC two years ago gave him $55,000, individual GOP senators kicked in around $35,600 from their personal campaign accounts, as well — at $90,600 equaling more money than Riebe spent in her whole campaign. Former Senate Pres. Wayne Niederhauser gave Zehnder $10,000 after he had lost to Riebe in 2018, rather odd timing, perhaps to help Zehnder pay back his personal loans.

So far this year, Zehnder has raised only $10,025, his pre-primary report shows. And he had only $4,800 in cash as of just before the June 30 primary. But he was unopposed in the Republican Party and his general election campaign is just beginning.

“He’s one of the hardest campaigners I’ve ever seen,” said Hemmert. “If work reflects results, he should be OK.”

But there’s already been some weird results in Senate elections this year — four years ago Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, was unopposed, no Republican or Democrat ran against him. This June, Hillyard was unseated by Logan car dealer Chris Wilson in the GOP primary in District 25. Wilson faces Democrat Nancy Huntly in this very Republican district that hasn’t been held by a Democrat in generations.

Harper has been representing parts of West Valley, West Jordan and Taylorsville for years — 24 to be exact — starting out in the Utah House in 1996. Democrats have targeted him before, both in the House and Senate, with no success.

In 2016 he won re-election to Senate District 6 by an impressive 6,643 votes, or 56.4 percent to 37 percent over his Democratic challenger. Back then, he raised $90,000 and spent $66,000; no reason to believe he could do so again this year.

His Democratic opponent is Erika Larsen, an attorney with one of the large Salt Lake firms

She has raised only $5,800 so far this year, spent only $600. If Harper raises $90,000, she has a long way to go to become financially competitive.

“Our (Senate) candidates are working very hard, we are encouraged by that,” said Mayne.

“I’m confident we can pick up those two seats” — Harper’s and Christensen’s open seat, she said.

While it may sound odd, if Senate Democrats were to go from just six seats to eight out of 29 it would be an almost revolutionary comeback for the minority party in the Senate.