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SANDY - Illegal immigration was the core issue at the Utah Republican Convention on Saturday that hurled 10-year veteran Congressman Chris Cannon into a June primary election with political novice John Jacob.
"Immigration is huge with the delegates," Jacob said after a runoff ballot gave him 52 percent of the vote to Cannon's 48 percent. "Chris Cannon tells them, 'I'm tough on illegal immigration - look at my record.' Well, his record does not show that."
Americans want a change, said Jacob, an Eagle Mountain business owner. But they don't want Democrats. "These delegates sent a message to Washington, D.C., that we will replace a Republican with a Republican, if necessary."
Cannon, who has survived two previous primaries, defended his stand on immigration, saying any solution will be complicated and nuanced.
"I've been working against illegal immigration for 10 years," he told delegates. "We have to turn off the the sound bites and the pretending that there's an easy fix."
"Obviously, there's a lot of unhappiness in America with the government, and we are seeing it here," Cannon said, acknowledging convention upset. "We had a whole lot of people who didn't show up because they didn't take my opponents seriously."
Former U.S. Rep. Merrill Cook, who also was challenging Cannon, was knocked out in the first ballot. Cook exploited Cannon's immigration record, hoping the anti-incumbent mood and his name recognition would put him, instead of Jacob, into a primary.
But Cook has a mixed track record with the party as a maverick who has broken to run as an independent. "People can have a long memory," said state Rep. Lorie Fowlke after the vote.
National leaders who spoke at the South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy also confronted the immigration issue. Former Secretary of the Treasury Angela "Bay" Buchanan endorsed Cook, saying Cannon supports open borders and amnesty for undocumented workers.
"We are a nation in crisis. Those in Washington have failed us. They have refused to secure the border and refused to enforce the laws of the land," she said. "Look at the incumbent. He's part of the failed leadership."
Keynote speaker Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., acknowledged delegates' passion about immigration.
"The present system is broken. It's a failed federal policy," he said. "We need a comprehensive approach, but first we have to fix our borders."
In Utah's 2nd Congressional District, where the talk was mainly focused on taxes and morals issues, state Rep. LaVar Christensen dispatched opponents Kris Lounsbury and Joe Tucker. He garnered 84 percent of the vote to claim the GOP nomination and the right to take on U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah's lone Democrat in Congress.
Christensen spent much of Saturday talking to delegates about his plans to remind voters of the modern Republican party's ideals: lower taxes, traditional marriage, the right to life. During a slick video presentation, he repeatedly linked his political philosophy to that of former President Ronald Reagan.
"As Republicans, we will not water down our values," Christensen said.
Many in the GOP have blamed expensive in-party primary battles for weakening conservative candidates opposing Matheson. This year, Christensen can bank his cash for a general election campaign.
"We've come together," Christensen said. "This is the year the incumbent faces the united Republican Party."
In legislative contests, one incumbent Republican state senator will face a primary and a long-time representative will face a challenger in his effort to take over a Senate seat.
Draper Sen. Howard Stephenson didn't have the same trouble. In a grudge match with Riverton Rep. Dave Hogue, Stephenson easily overcame his challenger with 77 percent of the delegates' votes. The race was cast as a battle between public-school supporters and private-school voucher advocates. Stephenson, a voucher champion, targeted Hogue in his last run for re-election two years ago. Hogue, with the support of the Utah Education Association, returned the favor this year. Hogue will leave the Legislature at the end of the year.
South Weber Sen. Dave Thomas, on the other hand, was not able to dismiss a challenge from Ogden Police Chief Jon Greiner. Greiner, who criticized Thomas for not supporting law enforcement, was endorsed by Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. Thomas and Greiner will face off in the primary June 27, with the winner running against former Ogden economic-development director Stuart Reid in November.
"Running for office is running for office," said Thomas of the primary. "With caucuses, conventions and primaries, you're running all year long anyway."
Seven-term Utah House member David Ure also will face a primary in his campaign to fill retiring Sen. Beverly Evans' seat representing Uintah, Daggett and Duchesne counties, and parts of Summit and Wasatch counties. Ure, a Kamas dairy farmer, spent much of the last month campaigning in the Uintah Basin. And he tried to convince delegates Saturday that his experience in the Legislature would bring immediate results.
"I'm the only one who can solve the problems of the district now - not two or three years from now," Ure said.
But it wasn't enough to hold off challenger Kevin Van Tassell, a Vernal banker. Another primary race is in store for a Bountiful-based House seat being vacated by Rep. Ann Hardy. Ronald Mortensen, a senior policy analyst for the conservative Sutherland Institute, will face Paul Neuenschwander. In south-central Utah, former state Judge Kay L. McIff and Gordon Topham will face off for the House seat left open by the retirement of Rep. Brad Johnson. But there will be no prolonged GOP fight in west Salt Lake County's District 12, where Christy Achziger knocked off two other challengers, including former Democratic Rep. Dan Tuttle for the nomination. Achziger now goes up against Democratic Sen. Brent Goodfellow of West Valley in November.
The intra-party battle also is over in Senate District 24. Current Sen. Darin Peterson, of Nephi, convincingly fended off Republican opponents Jay Collier and Ryan Smith.
And in Summit County-based House District 53, former House Speaker Mel Brown's challenger, Dee Putnam withdrew from the race earlier, leaving Brown to face Democrat Laura Bonham.