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Was this election a disaster for Utah Democrats? Perhaps there’s a silver lining

Your columnists are happy to join the crowd and share our perspectives on the final results and what it all means

Lannie Chapman, Salt Lake County chief deputy clerk, and Carson Adams, Salt Lake County election coordinator, load ballots onto an Agilis ballot packet sorting system at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

For political junkies, pundits and operatives, election results are a gold mine of information for endless analysis and rumination. With Utah’s election complete, the opining has begun. Your columnists are happy to join the crowd and share our perspectives on the final results and what it all means.

The hotly contested 4th Congressional District race finally ended with a narrow victory for Republican challenger Burgess Owens against Democrat incumbent Ben McAdams. This was unexpected six months ago. How did this happen? Does this race and other Utah elections mirror what happened on a national level?

Pignanelli: “What matters most in politics is personality. It’s not issues; it’s not image. It’s who you are and what you represent.” — Frank Luntz

The 2020 national elections were like a television reality program, heavy on personality but light on details. Similarly, the 4th District contest was not waged over specific policies or McAdam’s performance, but rather personalities and perceived alignment with extremist forces. Such battles require strategic positioning and clever tactics. Democrats spent millions blasting Owens for his bankruptcies. But many Utahns utilized such debt relief for compelling reasons. So, Owens’ opponents unwittingly reaffirmed his image as a common person with everyday struggles.

McAdams diagnosis in his concession speech was correct. Affiliation with lefty national Democrats was an impossible burden to shake, especially with Utah County Republicans casting ballots in greater numbers. Although a newcomer to politics, polls always revealed Owens a viable contender. This demonstrated serious headwinds for McAdams despite his strong performance in Congress. A persuasive substantive message was elusive. Indeed, thousands voted for Joseph Biden but lacked enthusiasm to even vote in this race.

Owens and his campaign deserve tremendous credit. They expertly and consistently stuck to their message of Owens as an outsider with real world problems. Whether because of the pandemic or frustration with Congress, voters were receptive to this message.

So, Owens is well prepared to enter a massive reality and entertainment milieu — the U.S. House of Representatives.

Webb: The turnout for the 2020 election was record-setting both in Utah and nationally. In addition to mail-in voting, a central reason for the massive turnout was Donald Trump — to vote for him or against him. In Utah and across the country, Trump’s base turned out and helped win Republican seats in Congress and state legislatures.

It is ironic that Trump couldn’t save himself, but he helped win hundreds of down-ballot races for Republicans. Biden had the weakest coattails of any presidential winner in 60 years.

In Utah, Trump won with more than 58% of the vote, up dramatically from his election in 2016. McAdams simply couldn’t withstand the Republican onslaught. This race was “nationalized” more than I would have expected. Utah voters didn’t want Democrats controlling the entire federal government.

All voters were sick of the negative advertising in the race. With so much of it, the sides canceled each other out as voters stopped paying attention.

Owens is already on Fox News frequently. As a Black Republican with a compelling life story, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to be a warrior for conservative values. However, he should follow the example of former Congresswoman Mia Love and keep his head down, immerse himself in committee work and constituent services, and on practical matters important to Utah.

On election night, Democrats were poised for some major victories only to see many of them disappear as all the ballots were counted. Was this year a disaster for Utah Democrats or is there a silver lining?

Pignanelli: Democrats have some condolences. No incumbent legislators lost and they overall netted a seat. Biden and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson captured a slight majority in Salt Lake County, but otherwise Republicans fared well in many other races. This reaffirms — again — Democrats require a different strategy in messaging.

Webb: Democrats in many races were clobbered with the same forces that took down McAdams. Republicans now hold a supermajority on the Salt Lake County Council, which is quite remarkable.

It would be a mistake, though, to label Utah a right-wing state. We will have a moderate governor in Spencer Cox and moderate members of Congress in Mitt Romney, John Curtis and Blake Moore. Remember that just two years ago a number of quite progressive ballot measure were approved. Our legislative leadership is mainstream.

We’re not swinging much to the left or right. Democrats still have hope with the right candidates and the right positions on issues.

Voter turnout in Utah was exceedingly high. Was this unique to 2020 or part of a larger trend?

Pignanelli: Because Utah suffered low voter rates for many years, politicos were grateful for this record response. The midterm 2022 elections may not garner as much excitement, but the volatile nature of politics does have a positive side of engaging citizens to mail their ballots. Thus, this could be a delightful trend.

Webb: Voting by mail has changed the game. Turnout will remain high, especially when helped by an emotional presidential race.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.