Rep. Christensen Hangs on by 3 Votes; Dems Gain 2 House Seats in Suburban Salt Lake

Vote HereNationally, Democrats took a beating on election night, but Utah Democrats received a small consolation prize when it appeared that the minority party picked up potentially four new House seats.

On Tuesday night, the official numbers are less rosy.

Traditionally, early voting tends to favor Democrats in the Beehive state, so when election results began to roll in after 8 PM on election night showing Democratic gains in the lower chamber, many Democrats were cautiously optimistic that all was not lost. But long lines at polling locations, combined with same-day voter registration in Salt Lake County, came together to create an agonizing two-week wait for several campaigns until official numbers would be announced. Despite very tight margins, it was possible that they were able to hold the line and bring the total number of Democrats in the House to 15.

Currently there are 12 Democrats in the lower chamber, however it was clear on election night that Democrat Brad King (Price) was unsuccessful in his bid to fight off Republican Christine Watkins. Interestingly, Watkins had held the seat previously…as a Democrat. Watkins would switch parties in 2012 after losing to former Republican Representative Jerry Anderson, who King would defeat in 2014. The swing district was still tight, with Watkins winning with 364 votes over King.

In 2014, Democrat Christine Passey appeared to be victorious over Representative Bruce Cutler (Republican – Murray) – however, the final numbers would show that Passy was defeated by 53 votes. In response, Democrats would target the district heavily in an attempt to win the seat – but 2016 appeared to be a cruel repeat for the Democrat, as Passey, who was initially up by 226 votes on election night, would eventually be defeated by Cutler after a near 500 vote swing in Cutler’s favor. Cutler would once again defeat Passey, this time by 277 votes.

Perhaps most heartbreaking for Democrats was to discover the victory of Dr. Suzanne Harrison over Representative LaVar Christensen (Republican – Draper) appears to have not held. On election night Harrison was up by 195 votes. But it appears that the victory lap was premature as the official tally shows Harrison losing to Christensen by three votes. The extremely tight margin does allow Harrison to request a recount.

Democrats have long bemoaned Christensen’s presence in the legislature. Arguably the legislators signature piece of legislation was 2004’s Amendment 3, which changed the state constitution to formally ban same-sex marriage in the state; a bill that would receive near-universal scorn from Democrats.

The apparent victory by Harrison was seen by many Democrats as a watershed moment the party continues to try to appeal to younger voters in the booming, young, suburban areas of Southern Salt Lake County.

One surprise for both Republicans and Democrats alike was the strong performance of Peter Tomala against incumbent Representative Craig Hall (Republican – West Valley City). Hall was able to narrowly fend off Tomala in the increasingly swing district in the heart of West Valley, winning by only 119 votes.

To that end, not all was not lost for Democrats, as they did pick up two seats in the Salt Lake Valley.

Democrat Elizabeth Wright successfully defeated Representative Sophia DiCaro (Republican – West Valley City). Wright was largely able to hold on to her election night victory of 270 votes, ultimately beating DiCaro by 240 votes.

In Taylorsville, Representative Johnny Anderson (Republican) opted not to run, creating one of the few open seats in this election. The battle would see Democratic candidate Karen Kwan soundly defeating her Republican challenger, Macade Jensen, by 1,073 votes.

Unless the Christensen/Harrison race flips back in favor of the Democrat after a recount, the 2017-18 House will consist of 13 Democrats and 62 Republicans – still well short of 26 Democrats necessary to break the Republican supermajority in the lower chamber.

On the Senate side, the one incumbent Democrat, Senator Luz Escamilla (Salt Lake City), was able to easily defeat her challenger and no other Democrats were successful in defeating their Republican counterparts. That chamber will continue to see a 24-5 split in favor of the Republicans.

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