Behind a Utah Republican's Loss

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In just the latest in a series of unexpected election year outcomes, incumbent Representative Chris Cannon lost his bid for re-election in the Republican primary in Utah's 3rd district, one of the most conservative districts in the country.

First-time candidate Jason Chaffetz defeated Cannon by a margin of 60 to 40%. Chaffetz told supporters after, "I think we've been given a mandate to return the Republican Party to its core conservative principles." Cannon blamed low voter turnout for the defeat, telling the Salt Lake Tribune that what happened was "a revolution. A revolution by the people sitting at home."

Elected in 1996, Cannon never enjoyed the security of some incumbents. "Chris Cannon has long had a lower favorability rating among his constituents than his fellow officeholders," said Quin Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University. "He never connected all that well with his constituents." Though Cannon was re-elected five times, his support for a guest-worker immigration program, and for a measure permitting states to charge in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants, hurt his standing among anti-immigration groups. Partly as a result, he faced primary tests in both 2004 and 2008.

Chaffetz, the new nominee, is a familiar face in Utah politics: he was the former campaign manager for popular Governor Jon Huntsman, for whom he also served as chief of staff. Chaffetz was also known statewide as a placekicker on the BYU football team in the late 1980s.

Despite weak fundraising, Chaffetz quickly gained support among local activists who remained disenchanted with Cannon. Like previous opponents, he pounded Cannon on immigration, but met even more success by painting Cannon as a representative of a Republican establishment that had become too profligate and too moderate for their constituents. At the state party convention in May, Chaffetz received 59% of the delegates' votes, 1% away from making a primary runoff moot.

There is also the matter of general voter discontent. In a pre-election poll done by BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, 40% of voters in the district said they were worse off than a year ago, and 80% believe the country is on the wrong track. Only 15% of respondents said they strongly approve of President Bush, a stunning low margin in a district that voted 77% for him in 2004.