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Incumbent fear: Cannon loss sets off wave of worry
By Thomas Burr and Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake Tribune
Published June 26, 2008 12:59 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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Staffers in Rep. Chris Cannon's Washington office received hundreds of sympathy messages on Wednesday. National publications ran his photo as if it was an obituary. One of his Utah colleagues even referred to him in the past tense.

Cannon took to KSL Radio in the morning to tamp down premature reports of his demise.

"I got up this morning to e-mails of condolence, like someone had died, ya know," Cannon said. "I think somebody missed the message."

Cannon lives, for the record, and says he is committed to working hard in his remaining months in office and to helping elect Republicans. But the message from the six-term congressman's primary loss to challenger Jason Chaffetz struck hard in Washington where members already fear they too may face an angry mob of voters in November - or dispirited Republicans could just stay home.

In some ways, Cannon may be a ''congressman in the coalmine.''

"The Utah primary confirms what we've been saying all along, which is that no incumbent is truly safe in this environment," says Ken Spain, the press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

With gas prices soaring, immigration issues unsolved and crushing federal deficits looming, voters are giving Congress some of the lowest approval ratings ever. Cannon is the third incumbent - and the second Republican - this year to get the boot.

Maryland Reps. Wayne Gilchrest, a Republican, and Al Wynn, a Democrat, lost in February battles for their parties' nominations. Some pundits predict a Democratic wave may wash out more incumbent Republicans in November.

"I think the Republicans are in for a tough ride anyway, and I think the ennui that is being felt here in Utah is going on around the country," Cannon said in an interview on Wednesday. "This is a plague nationwide."

Kelly Patterson, director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, said polling showed a strong desire for change in Cannon's district, and dwindling support for President Bush in one of the most conservative areas in the country.

Those same trends will affect every congressional race in the country to varying degrees, he predicts.

"I think people in this state were wondering how strong the desire for change was," Patterson said. "It came home to roost yesterday."

David Wasserman, the U.S. House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, dismissed labels calling this a bellwether race. He said there are unique circumstances with this race and that anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment didn't spell Cannon's defeat.

"Cannon's performance in primaries has always been a good thermometer of just how heated the immigration issue is for the Republicans - just how hot it is for the Republican base," Wasserman said. "This year it was hotter than ever."

Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who is arguably the staunchest anti-illegal immigration member, said it was clear the immigration issue helped knock Cannon out of office. While voting for immigration law enforcement and border fence protections, Cannon had backed more comprehensive approaches that critics had labeled amnesty.

"My first impression is that . . . any Republican who's running for office and believes the immigration issue is dead should take another look and see what happened to Mr. Cannon," Tancredo says. "For the Republican base, this race sends a very clear message that to them it still very much matters."

Cannon said that part of the problem Republicans face is that they have begun eating their own.

"In our little circle firing squad, Republicans are hurting themselves seriously and people are not interested in voting," Cannon said.

GOP candidates have to refocus the theme of the election, moving it from "change" to fixing high gas prices and opposing tax cuts if they are to have a chance to prevail.

Utah Sen. Bob Bennett said there is little question the public's low regard for Washington entered into Cannon's defeat at the hands of a little-known challenger.

"If you look at overall approval ratings for Congress as an institution you have to say that played some sort of a role," Bennett said.

tburr@sltrib.com

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* MATT CANHAM contributed to this report.



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