Editor’s Note: Over the next several weeks UtahPolicy.com will analyze several legislative races this year, the candidates and their political histories.
In perhaps the largest legislative rematch race of 2020, freshman Democratic Sen. Kathleen Riebe is being challenged by former GOP Sen. Brian Zehnder in Senate District 8, up on the east side of Salt Lake County.
Zehnder was appointed when former GOP Sen. Brian Shiozawa, a doctor, resigned in late 2017 to join the Trump administration’s health department.
(Shiozawa is back in Utah, I bumped into him at the 2020 Legislature. He’s now working for the University of Utah health services.)
Zehnder had to run in 2018 for a mid-term election of Shiozawa’s four-year term.
But Riebe beat Zehnder in Utah’s minor-blue-wave in Salt Lake County midterms, which also saw county Democrats do very well, and Ben McAdams unseat GOP U.S. Rep. Mia Love in the 4th District.
The Cottonwood Heights district has gone back and forth between the major parties that last several decades.
Shiozawa, an emergency room physician, was one of the more moderate Republicans in the Senate during his five years, and Zehnder’s 2018 website shows what appears to be equally moderate stands when compared to some of the really right-wing GOP senators.
But Riebe, a school teacher, handled Zehnder handily two years ago, winning 55.8 percent to his 41.7 percent, or 5,893 more votes in a three-way final election count.
Zehnder is also a doctor and had considerably more campaign financial resources.
He outspent Riebe, $196,158 to $72,314, loaning his campaign around $46,000 himself. He later paid himself back $20,000, for a net self-contribution of $26,000.
Zehnder served in the Senate during 2018, and he made some friends.
The Senate’s Republican PAC 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 President Wayne Niederhauser gave Zehnder $10,000 after he had lost to Riebe, rather odd timing.
Riebe got $3,500 from the Democrat’s Senate PAC, small contributions from Senate Democrats individually.
But even though Zehnder outspent her by more than two-to-one, in the end, he was rather easily defeated.
One could say, of course, that he was swept away in the Salt Lake County 2018 blue-tide -- it really wasn’t that large of a wave compared to other midterm results nationwide.
Salt Lake County is still slightly more Republican than Democrat, after all. Not just as much so as the rest of the state.
As Republicans try to win back some of the Senate and House seats in the county that they once held, the Riebe-Zehnder rematch is at ground zero.
In a presidential election year -- with a highly-competitive Republican gubernatorial primary -- no doubt GOP leaders believe Zehnder has the best chance against Riebe.
For as Zehnder found out two years ago, the best time to defeat an incumbent is in her or his first re-election, when voters don’t know their officeholder as well as he or she may wish.