Republican incumbent Jason Chaffetz is seeking a fourth term. His Democratic challenger is new to politics and not eager to embrace the attention that comes with running for public office.
Democrat Brian Wonnacott is a textbook underdog. He’s an introverted outdoorsman who prefers a fishing cap over quaffed hair or an expensive suit and tie. Wonnacott has no political experience to speak of. But that didn’t stop him from signing up to challenge one of the most popular political officials in the state of Utah. In fact, he was the only candidate to step to the challenge. Wonnacott ran unopposed at the Utah Democratic State Convention, where delegates choose their party’s nominees.
Earlier this month, he joined Chaffetz for a televised debate at Utah Valley University— telling viewers he’s not a politician.
“I am a problem solver,” Wonnacott said. “I would like to do my part for Utah. I do not consider myself running against Mr. Chaffetz as much as I am running against the do-nothing Congress of which he is a part.”
The software engineer who has scaled Kilimanjaro and Mt. Rainier said he realizes battling it out with a media-savvy Chaffetz would no doubt be his toughest climb. Wonnacott told KUER after the debate he’d be surprised to get 30 percent of the vote in November because only about 30 percent of 3rd district voters identify as Democrats.
“The reason I became a candidate was that I was thinking that I might be able to participate in the debate,” Wonnacott said. “I had no intention of becoming the Democratic candidate. I thought I might be an independent candidate…And I’d hoped that some of the issues that are important to Democrats might be presented.”
Wonnacott says he had hoped to talk about his support for same-sex marriage, climate change, net neutrality and internet privacy. Instead, he was faced with questions he wasn’t prepared for, like how he would vote to prevent another housing crisis.
“It’s not what we need to be addressing right now,” he said. “There is a lot of economic concern but the housing bubble is behind us. I guess…I guess I don’t know what I would do about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”
Chaffetz said Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae should become a private institution.
Chaffetz has had a successful run in Congress. Should he be re-elected, he’s in line to chair the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which often tackles politically charged issues like the recent probe into the Secret Service following a White House security breach.
“Part of my justification for running again and hoping voters put me back in there is we have 435 members of the House of Representatives,” Chaffetz said. “You got to have a representative who’s relevant. I’m not there to sit on the back bench and be a wallflower and just vote.”
Chaffetz said he’s in a prime position to meet the expectations of his conservative constituents.
“My mantra in going forward with the campaign was fiscal discipline, limited government accountability and a strong national defense,” he said. “If you get those four things moving in the right direction the country will be better off.”
Dr. David Magelby is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He also moderated the 3rd Congressional District debate where he witnessed, Wonnacott’s struggle.
He said Wonnacott’s performance hurt the Democratic Party and it was apparent to viewers that Chaffetz had a better stage presence.
“Chaffetz is the most prepared Republican politician in Utah for this kind of debate,” Dr. Magelby said. “In contrast, he was going against the least prepared Democrat, Mr. Wonnacott.”
Some question why Democrats aren’t recruiting highly qualified, enthusiastic candidates for heavily Republican districts. But Dr. Magelby said taking on a popular incumbent is a formidable challenge nationally, not just in Utah. He said this mid-term election, it’s likely more than 80 percent of incumbents seeking re-election will win, regardless of the party.
What Utah Democrats need to do, Dr. Magelby said, is get to work recruiting young, articulate candidates who see the race as a long-term venture.
“It’s going to require running a second third time in order to build up the name recognition and the credibility,” he said.
Democratic Party Chair Peter Corroon says the party stands by Wonnacott, who he said truly cares about the people of Utah.
“He’s also a lover of the outdoors, which I think is important because we need somebody who will stand up for the open lands that we have in Utah,” Corroon said. “We’ve got a huge economy based on recreation and the outdoors.”
Corroon said he recognizes the challenge of putting someone in the race with no political experience.
“But he’s somebody who’s stepped up and said we need to have two voices in Congress,” he said. “We need to have non-politicians out there who just care about our communities. So he’s just a regular old guy who wants to make a difference in our community.”
At last check, Wonnacott had only raised about $2400 for his campaign, compared to Chaffetz’, who had already spent a quarter of a million dollars as of the June reporting deadline. That’s another indicator that Wonnacott’s chances this November are slim.