Mullen | Easy Pickins: Even the true believers are doubting Chris Buttars 

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That noise you hear coming from a cramped office space at 455 S. 300 East is the frantic punching of telephone numbers, the clicking of computer keyboards and the rustling pages of voter registration lists.

It’s the sound of the Democratic State Committee, scrambling to find a good candidate to 1. Run against an increasingly embattled incumbent, state Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, or 2. run for an open seat in Senate District 10, in the event that Buttars wises up and decides to step down this re-election year.

Either way, the message has hit state Democratic Party honchos right between the eyes. This is their moment to swoop in and pick up the seat that Buttars is all but handing off to an opponent—almost like one of those people at Costco who pass out free egg-roll samples. These days, every time the grumpy old racist/homophobe opens his mouth, it’s another invitation: “Come and get me.”

This time, the Demos are taking him up on it. And, why wouldn’t they?

“We want [Buttars] to run. Oh man, do we want him to run,” says Rob Miller, vice chairman of the state Democratic Committee and head of the party’s 2008 candidate-recruitment committee. “Republican leaders keep saying it’s not up to them to tell Sen. Buttars what to do, that the voters should decide. But I’m sure that behind the scenes, leadership is giving him some trouble.”

So fine, Miller tells me. Let the voters decide. And this November, with a general nationwide shift toward Democratic leadership, Utah Democrats have the best chance in years to pick up some vulnerable seats around the state. Starting with Buttars’ district.

In the days since Feb. 12, when Buttars muttered his infamous “black baby” remark in front of the Senate, the press and God himself, life hasn’t been easy for the former director of the Utah Boy’s Ranch and one-time political moderate. Little known fact: A much younger Chris Buttars, then active in local West Jordan politics, once squired Democratic challenger Ted Wilson around town during his 1982 U.S. Senate race against incumbent-for-life Orrin Hatch. They even attended the sacrosanct West Jordan Rodeo together.

But, at this point, even the true believers are beginning to doubt the wisdom of Buttars hanging on.

Especially since he stepped right into a pile again with

another ill-advised comment to

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Robert Gehrke. In Buttars’ first interview since the baby remark, he told Gehrke just five days later his political enemies have formed a “hate lynch mob” against him.

Oh, the easiness of this target. That a man would make one racist comment against blacks, then without missing a beat, refer to a “lynch mob” conjures up delicious satirical possibilities.

But I’ll let Rob Miller continue.

Who might the Demos recruit for Buttars’ seat? Miller is cagey on this one. He says he’s got two candidates on his short list. One is “a woman with some name recognition” in the southwest end of Salt Lake County. “Everyone I approach [in a solidly Republican district] tells me ‘no’ the first time I ask. But I’m working on it.”

This year, Utah Democrats are counting on a couple of forces to help them add a few precious wins around the state. First, in the wake of Mitt Romney’s resignation, an anti-John McCain sentiment still grips Utah Republicans. McCain, of course, is working overtime to woo conservatives who see him as too liberal. But it isn’t lost on Miller that Barack Obama won big in Utah, and that even in their red-state bliss, many Republicans have been heard to grumble they would vote for Obama over McCain.

Next, Miller says, Republican politicians are still on the defensive over their crushing school-voucher defeat. Notice how little talk there’s been on the issue at this year’s Legislature. In party polling, Miller says, respondents typically align Republicans with pushing vouchers—even though the majority of Utahns soundly opposed them long before the matter landed on the ballot.

“When we remind people that the Democrats were the anti-voucher party, it resonates with them. There’s still a lot of feeling about it out there,” Miller says.

It isn’t that Miller and gang are fooling themselves. They know that even with Buttars’ long history of gaffes (he and Senate President John Valentine continue to describe the “black baby” comment only as a “breach of decorum”), he comes from a conservative district. And at the end of the day, even with all the outrage tagging Buttars, most people either aren’t aware of it, or they just don’t care.

“This stuff hardly registers with most people. Mostly they care about their church work, or snowmobiling or getting the boat ready for spring.”

But this is the year to hammer home the built-in arrogance that has evolved in this one-party state. That sense of “if the Democrats can’t make inroads this year, for hells’ sake, then when?” is building.

Miller would like you to know: He’s all over it.

Note: Holly Mullen is married to the aforementioned Ted Wilson.

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