Opinion: Can a Democrat ever win a statewide race in Utah again?
The party has not won a statewide race since 1996. Legislative seats have remained relatively constant, averaging less than 25% in each house
The political class loves to analyze and dissect trends and nuances affecting voters. We perform our own dissection of a recent survey conducted by the respected think tank Utah Foundation regarding political ideology of Utah voters.
Using methodology employed by the Pew Research Center on a cross-section of American voters, the Utah Foundation retained Y2 Analytics to measure the political ideology of Utahns. To no one’s surprise, a great deal of polarization exists between members of the two main political parties. However, while Utah Republicans remained stable on the political spectrum, Utah Democrats have recently moved farther to the left than even their counterparts in the rest of the country. Do election results reflect this trend and what does it portend for the future?
Pignanelli: “Progressives brag publicly about pushing the Democratic party leftward — and they succeeded.” – Kevin Drum, Jabberwocking
For decades the common adage was a Utah Democrat would be considered a Republican anywhere else. This once perceptive insight morphed into a mistaken canard. Veteran observers illustrate the leftward shift in the last two decades by reference to election results. A Democrat has not won a statewide race since 1996. Legislative seats have remained relatively constant, averaging less than 25% in each house.
The liberal swing increases difficulty for moderate Democrats in convention and primary contests. Furthermore, candidates will be tempted to appease well-funded national PACs that demand adherence to lefty litmus tests that create problems in the general election.
Unless a new maxim is adopted and practiced, the minority party may have difficulty garnering additional victories.
Webb: Democrats in Utah and nationally are in very difficult positions right now, poised to lose seats in the 2022 election. It is a predicament of their own making. By tilting left on so many issues, they have left ordinary citizens behind. They misunderstand the attitudes of average, commonsense Americans who don’t favor big government, high taxes or over-the-top political correctness.
The problem is both ideology and issues. Americans don’t believe they are systemically racist and they recoil against the liberal ideology of victimhood and identity politics. They are concerned about the loss of traditional values and are suspicious of big government, Big Tech, big media, big business,and the entertainment industry that together seem to control the levers of power.
And they see the problems of inflation (especially gas prices), energy dependence on foreign countries, dysfunctional immigration, crime and an ineffective COVID-19 response getting worse under the Biden administration and Democratic control of Congress.
When I talk to ordinary people, working men and women, they are appalled. They simply feel the country is going in the wrong direction. They are ready for a change.
The survey also indicated that 50% of Utah voters are registered as Republicans and just 15% as Democrats, reflecting a slight increase since 2016. Is it hopeless for Democrats or is there a path where they could attract unaffiliated and moderate Republicans?
Pignanelli: The study reaffirms Democrats can only win key races (federal, statewide and swing legislative) if they cobble together a coalition of usual supporters, a majority unaffiliated and a slice of moderate Republicans.
Congressman Jim Matheson was the most successful Utah Democrat in this century by establishing his persona as a maverick not beholden to Washington liberals. (Ben McAdams used a similar tactic in 2018.) For example, both promised they would not vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, which was well accepted. Their tactics demonstrate an important element that Utahns will elect a Democrat with demonstrable distance from the left wing.
Major issues Democrats historically forwarded (i.e. clean air, economic fairness, nondiscrimination, etc.) are now important to many local Republicans — especially millennials. Messaging on these issues, while demonstrating separation from the national Democratic agenda, could be a fertile approach. The “Matheson Formula” for success exists. Is there a willingness to use it?
Webb: The Democratic registration number is low, in part, because, unlike Republicans, the party does not require registration to participate in party caucuses or primary elections. Thus, a number of Utahns consider themselves to be Democrats but aren’t counted in the registration numbers.
Still, while quality Democratic candidates can still win some legislative races and nonpartisan local government contests, it will take a very special mainstream, charismatic Democrat to win a statewide office or a seat in Congress.
Both Pew and Utah Foundation suggest that national and Utah voters (including unaffiliated) as a whole slightly shifted left. What does this imply for our state?
Pignanelli: This reveals that Utah Republican leaders are very shrewd. They are appeasing the extreme elements within ranks while quietly responding to concerns their constituents are expressing on social, education and environmental issues. By doing so they have maintained power without sacrificing traditional principles.
Webb: I’m not surprised to see a slight shift given the pervasive liberal messaging of the mainstream news media, academia, Hollywood/entertainment industry and the technology giants. With the nation’s major influencers all far to the left, it’s actually more surprising that more citizens haven’t followed their lead. It’s a tribute to individual independence that so many average Americans are still conservative and don’t want big government to dictate their lives and take care of them from cradle to grave.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: email@example.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.