Environment helping GOP challenger as Cannon again faces political demise

Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) has weathered difficult primaries throughout his six terms, but never as a member of such an unpopular Congress.

That anti-incumbent mood of voters will be put to a major test Tuesday, when Cannon faces what appears to be his toughest primary challenge yet.


Despite Congress’s record-low approval ratings, no incumbent has succumbed to a primary since a pair of Maryland House members lost in February. Cannon appears more imperiled than any member since then.

Just weeks after narrowly surviving a state convention against former gubernatorial aide Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzThe myth of the conservative bestseller Elijah Cummings, Democratic chairman and powerful Trump critic, dies at 68 House Oversight panel demands DeVos turn over personal email records MORE, it’s clear Tuesday’s primary between the two of them is anybody’s guess.

A Deseret News poll released over the weekend showed Cannon leading within the margin of error, 44-40.

The results mirror the same poll about a month earlier, which showed Cannon ahead 39-37.

Without any big races on the ballot, the most motivated primary voters will decide Cannon’s fate.

“Neither campaign has been incredibly visual,” said Cannon’s mail consultant, Peter Valcarce. “They’ve both done just a small amount of television, a small amount of mail and a small amount of radio.”

Valcarce acknowledged that the expected small turnout “favors the challenger.”

Chaffetz is relying on the same type of grassroots effort that earned him 59 percent of the vote at the May convention — just shy of the 60 percent he needed to defeat Cannon outright.

The former chief of staff to Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) has raised only about $175,000, but he claims a large advantage in organization, which he is banking on in a low-turnout primary in an anti-incumbent election.

“I don’t have the best name recognition — ‘Chaffetz’ is hard enough to say, let alone spell. Chris Cannon has spent $500,000 more than I have on this race, and yet I’ve been consistently beating him,” Chaffetz said. “That’s because we’ve got a message that’s resonated and an organization that’s real and widespread.”

Cannon has been using his seniority on the campaign trail and boasts the endorsements of President Bush and Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchSenate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Five takeaways as panel grills tech CEOs Trump awards medal of freedom to former congressman, Olympian Jim Ryun MORE (R-Utah) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah). Huntsman has stayed neutral.

Those endorsements and Cannon’s money make him the favorite on paper, but it’s still the toughest challenge he’s faced, said LaVarr Webb, a consultant who worked for former Gov. Mike Leavitt (R).

Leavitt’s brother, primary candidate David Leavitt, threw his support to Cannon at the convention, likely prolonging the congressman’s political career. Chaffetz needed just nine more votes to win the nomination.

“I would give the edge to Cannon,” said Webb, who publishes the UtahPolicy.com political newsletter. “Had Chaffetz not alienated Leavitt during the pre-convention campaign … then Chaffetz would be the nominee today, or at least be in better shape.”

The low turnout and lack of visibility for the campaign is expected to be further exacerbated by the lack of up-ballot action. The main event apart from the 3rd district race is a state treasurer primary.

Jeff Hartley, who heads Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Prominent conservatives question Jerry Falwell Jr. vacation photo NRCC poll finds McBath ahead of Handel in Georgia MORE’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign in the state and is a former Cannon staffer, said there is very little for the casual voter to get excited about.

Utah voters lost a potential motivating force in February when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) dropped out of the presidential race. Romney, who like a majority of Utahans is a Mormon, took 90 percent of the vote in the primary there.

“Chris really has benefited in years past from other interesting races turning people out, and in a normal year, in a Republican primary, Chris is going to be OK because the power of incumbency would carry him,” Hartley said. “But this is not a normal year.”

Cannon has faced two of his most difficult primaries each of the past two cycles, defeating former state Rep. Matt Throckmorton 58-42 in 2004 and developer John Jacob 56-44 in 2006.

Local observers see Chaffetz as a more well-rounded candidate. Throckmorton only raised $80,000, and Jacob focused his campaign almost exclusively on a hard-line immigration platform — a tactic that proved less effective in 2006 than many candidates had hoped.

Jacob led Cannon, a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, among hard-line immigration voters but lost other categories, said Quin Monson, a professor at Brigham Young University.

Monson, who has conducted extensive polling on Cannon’s primary, said Chaffetz is doing better across the board.

He also noted that Bush likely won’t be a big help for Cannon. His numbers show Bush’s approval has dropped from the high 80s in the district to around 60 percent, with only a small portion strongly approving. About four in five likely GOP primary voters say the country is on the wrong track.

“I think it’s a bad context for Cannon,” Monson said. “I think he’s had a tough time in the past because he’s not connected with voters personally. But now, he’s got that on top of a context that’s not so good.”

Cannon’s office declined to comment, citing The Hill’s report last week that Cannon had cribbed language from an interest group on his congressional website.