Cannon’s loss shows anti-incumbency potent, but insufficient for shakeup

Rep. Chris Cannon’s loss in a GOP primary in Utah Tuesday may illustrate the anti-incumbent mood of voters. But the way he and two other incumbents have lost suggests the mood won’t be enough for a major shakeup in Congress.

A near-perfect storm appears to have capsized Cannon, who suffered from low turnout and a solid grassroots opponent.


The six-term incumbent had previously overcome primary challenges and held a towering financial advantage in 2008, but 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 still defeated him by a comfortable margin of 20 points.

Still, that made Cannon just the third incumbent to be thrown out of office so far this year, with about half the primary season having now come and gone. Voters decided to stick with several other members who faced primary challengers, including Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

Cannon shared a common trait with the two Maryland House members who preceded him in losing primaries, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R) and former Rep. Al Wynn (D). All three had faced tough primaries before, and in 2008 the trio faced stronger challengers with better campaigns.

Wynn faced an improved Donna Edwards for the second straight time after her near-miss maiden voyage, while Gilchrest finally had a well-funded and well-known opponent who could garner institutional support in state Sen. Andy Harris.

In Cannon’s case, Chaffetz wasn’t terribly well-funded, but he did put together the kind of grassroots effort any candidate would be jealous of. After shocking many last month by overtaking another primary challenger at the state convention and nearly coming through with the 60 percent he needed to end the race then and there, Chaffetz pulled almost exactly 60 percent in Tuesday’s primary.

While praising his campaign and noting the deficiencies of the single-issue candidates who ran against Cannon in the past, Chaffetz said his win should send a message to Washington.

“It was a huge message,” said Chaffetz, who had no paid staffers and raised less than $200,000 for the convention and primary. “This ought to be a wake-up call to the establishment in Washington that people are fed up with what’s happening and not happening in Washington.”

The race’s 10 percent turnout was lower than at any point in recent memory, the state lieutenant governor’s office said.

While Cannon won more than 27,000 votes in a 2004 primary and more than 32,000 votes in his 2006 primary, only about 18,000 voters turned out for him Tuesday, when there was little else on the ballot for them to show up for. He was roundly defeated across the district, winning only tiny Juab and Beaver counties, and dropping the big counties, Utah and Salt Lake, by thousands of votes.

The unexpectedly large margin — Cannon polled ahead by four points just last week — echoed the results in Maryland, where both Gilchrest and Wynn lost by double digits in races that appeared to be ready to tip either way on primary day.

“I always thought we’d win, but I was a bit astounded by the margin,” Chaffetz said. “We had record low turnout, and that ought to be another sign that all is not well.”

Chaffetz is now a cinch to take Cannon’s place in November in a district that voted 77 percent for President Bush in 2008.

Republicans on Wednesday were attributing Cannon’s loss to that anti-incumbent sentiment. National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) has in the past tried to pitch the 2008 election as volatile on both sides, with voters prepared to throw out both Republicans and Democrats.

Republicans since then have acknowledged the environment and their financial situation give Democrats an edge, but they still hope to pick off some Democratic incumbents.

In a memorandum released early Wednesday morning, the NRCC said Chaffetz “ran a grassroots campaign that centered on changing the way Washington does business — a theme that will be equally pertinent during the general election in the fall.”