News Director's Note: Throughout this month, KUER reporters will profile the five major mid-term election races leading up to Election Day. This is the first.
Utah’s First Congressional District includes all or part of 10 northern counties, and Rob Bishop, the Republican congressman who’s represented it for six terms, wants the voters to send him back to Washington. Donna McAleer, the Democrat challenging him for a second time, finds herself on a steep path to unseat him.
Bishop has been a fixture in Utah politics for nearly four decades. The Republican is known for his low-key style, and that’s exactly what voters saw when Bishop faced off in a debate last month with McAleer.
“When I first went back to Congress, I made one promise: to be myself: A Utah conservative who shares your values and your dreams,” he said. “And I’ve appreciated the opportunity of going back there and do that. Speaker Pelosi, Harry Reid – they have a very different vision of what government should be compared those here in Utah, and I’m proud to be one of the voices standing up for the principles that we have here in Utah.”
Bishop focused on his deep Utah ties and seemed to coast through the debate.
McAleer detailed her broad resume, talked about being a West Point graduate, running a tech company, managing a healthcare nonprofit and even competing in world-class sports.
She attacked Congress -- and Rob Bishop -- for doing a lousy job.
“Today’s Congress has demonstrated its part of the problem,” she said.
“I’m campaigning to be part of the solution: tomorrow’s Congress that will end the gridlock that has plagued Washington and continues to delay decisions that affect all of us.’
“At 17, I learned it’s the mission that matters,” she continued, “and Congress has lost focus on its mission, governing our country and delivering results.”
McAleer’s facing one of the toughest feats in politics: trying to unseat a sitting member of Congress.
Bishop is running for a seventh term, and simply being an incumbent makes him likely to get reelected. Voters return incumbents to Congress around 85 percent of the time.
But McAleer says she’s determined to retire Bishop.
At the Miner’s Day parade last month in her hometown of Park City, McAleer literally ran circles around the float. Her pop-flower bell-bottoms were the kind of funky outfit parade organizers requested, but they also echo her high-energy personality.
I asked the Democrat what voters would find most surprising about her. Her answer? She quit a corporate job to train for an Olympic dream -- only to barely miss a slot on the U.S. bobsled team.
“That one I fell a little short on,” she said, “but I didn’t want to, um, be looking back on this saying woulda-coulda-shoulda. And, you know, Wayne Gretsky says you miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”
McAleer calls Bishop the “Guardian of Gridlock” partly over his role in the government shutdown a year ago. She says he helped engineer the sequestration that furloughed more than 36,000 federal workers in Utah and cost the state $30 dollars.
Polls say most Americans share her disgust with Congress. But even that’s not likely to help McAleer unseat Bishop, says University of Utah political scientist Tim Chambless.
“The district is designed by the Legislature, dominated by the Republican Party, to have voters support him by about 62 percent,” he said, “and that was represented [in their first matchup] in the general election of November, 2012.”
Chambless says name recognition, campaign cash and Utah’s GOP leanings all favor the incumbent.
“So, for a Democrat challenger to defeat Rob Bishop, Congressman Bishop has to make a mistake – corruption or the economy has to change significantly,” he continued, “With that in mind, again, if you predict the immediate future off the recent past, you’d have to give the predicted advantage to the incumbent.”
The candidates give voters a clear choice in this rematch.
McAleer lives in progressive Park City; Bishop in conservative Brigham City. Bishop was a gun-rights lobbyist in Utah but had no guns. McAleer used guns as a military police officer and favors some gun controls.
“The real debate is not about the Second Amendment,” McAleer said in last month’s debate. “It’s about real, responsible gun ownership. Why? Because regardless of what side of this issue you’re on, I think we would all agree, guns are not toys.”
Bishop taught public school for 26 years. But McAleer snagged endorsements from the national and state teachers unions. McAleer graduated from West Point, but the defense sector backs Bishop’s reelection bid.
The congressman said in an interview that voters can learn more about him at VoteBishop.com, but when I checked the web page, I saw it hasn’t had a new entry since 2012.
This election is important, says Bishop, because he’s in line to chair the House Natural Resources Committee.
“With 70 percent of the state of Utah owned by the federal government, that becomes a significant issue for the state of Utah,” he said. “And I’d like to end my career there, as Resource chairman.”
Most of the 157 measures Bishop’s introduced deal with public land, and four have become law. He’s also leading a compromise to preserve wilderness in eastern Utah, while opening up other public land to development.
Keith Jacques was a Bishop delegate at the state GOP convention last spring. He said he was pleased to see the nation’s most popular governor, fellow Utah Republican Gary Herbert, alongside his candidate’s town hall meeting this summer in Ogden.
“I could tell down there when I was down at the convention the power that he has, and the people behind him support him 100 percent,” said Jacques. “I think he will win.”
McAleer supporter Debi Scoggan is just as confident that her candidate has the message and the moxie for the times.
“We need a big change,” she said. “Rob is old. He’s old school. He’s old in every way. (I’m sorry, Rob, I’m sure you’re a good person.) And she is a new face with new energy, and she’s with the times. She’s modern.”
McAleer’s keeping a vigorous pace. She’s gotten an endorsement from the state’s largest newspaper: the Salt Lake Tribune.
But the latest federal campaign reports from June show that Bishop had already raised about twice as much money.
Still, McAleer’s working hard to get enough of her supporters to the polls to send her to Washington so she can beat the odds.