Republicans may lose some moderate, reform-minded legislators

As of Wednesday evening, it appears that three moderate GOP Utah House members from Salt Lake County may have lost their re-elections, unofficial vote tallies show.

But Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen says that “thousands and thousands” of last-minute mail-in ballots are left to be counted. The updated counts in Salt Lake County came in around 4 p.m.

“We are not even close to getting final vote numbers” on some of those close GOP contests in the county, she said.

If, indeed, the close races don’t turn around for these incumbents, then these longtime House Republicans may be gone:

— Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, seems the most vulnerable after Wednesday’s counts came in. Hutchings, an 18-year incumbent, barely won re-election two years ago. The latest tallies show Hutchings down 503 votes to Democratic challenger Ashlee Matthews, or 53.53 percent for her and 46.47 percent for Hutchings in District 38.

— Joining Hutchings in the losing column are Republican Reps. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, and Steve Eliason, R-Sandy.

Barely hanging on in his Sandy District 49 is Rep. Robert Spendlove by 235 votes, the updates show, and Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley, is up by 182 votes.

As it stands now, Democrats would pick up three House seats from Republicans and defend all of the seats they held before, or go from 16 seats out of 75 to 19 seats — many seats away from being down by less than two-thirds in the House, and remaining very much in the minority.

Still, the loss of three Salt Lake County-based House seats is a blow to the majority Republicans in the Utah House.

Worse, Hutchings and Eliason have been leaders in the small, moderate wing of the GOP House caucus.

And they have been leaders themselves in several areas of recent so-called “reform” movements.

Hutchings has the been the No. 1 advocate of criminal justice reform, which has seen major changes in how people are charged with crimes, put in prison, and rehabilitated in the state.

Eliason is a leader and major advocate for mental health care in Utah, especially on adult and youth suicide prevention efforts. Dunnigan has led health reform efforts.

Both Hutchings and Eliason were hit by the now-infamous Salt Lake County Democratic Party fliers that blamed the two men — among other Utah House Republicans — for the failed/unpopular tax reform effort of 2019, even though both men voted against the tax bill in a December special session.

Even members of the Utah Democratic House caucus criticized their own county political party for the fliers, which were disavowed as inaccurate and unfair — since the pair voted against the unpopular bill.

On a broader scale, should the three GOP incumbents lose their seats the results reflect a Democratic movement southward and eastward for the minority in the state’s largest county, which holds 26 of the state’s 75 House districts.

Winder, a former mayor of West Valley City, comes from a famous family in the area and has been able to fight off several challenges in his House District 30. He was up 58-42 percent in Tuesday’s election and seems safe again this year.

Hall, however, is only up 182 votes in his District 33. Even if he wins a close re-election, he is now about surrounded by Democratic House members as his district slowly becomes more moderate/Democratic.

Spendlove is in a Sandy district that has been held in the past by Democrats.

The fact that Republicans didn’t take away any Democratic House seats in Salt Lake County shows a clear vulnerability and changing political demographics — as Democrats’ victories move ever more south and southeast in the county.

How the GOP-controlled Legislature redraws the House and Senate districts in the county in next year’s redistricting will reflect this year’s legislative Democratic victories — and no doubt lead to charges of gerrymandering by leaders of the minority party.

It appeared Wednesday that the make-up of the 29-member Senate won’t change at all — Republicans held on to all of their seats up this year, as did Democrats. It will again be a 23-6 majority for the Republicans.