Breaking It Down | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

November 11, 2020 News » Cover Story

Breaking It Down 

Utah’s election results didn’t shock—except that the Beehive might be slightly more blue.

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America is facing many long, dark, bitterly divisive weeks between now and Inauguration Day.

The outgoing president has signaled his intent to defy gravity until the bitter end, democratic institutions be damned! Loyalists like Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes are committed to going down with the ship, stretching the limits of logic and reason in an attempt to bend the universe to their will.

Control of the U.S. Senate will be determined by the state of Georgia in January, meaning the campaign season will extend into extra innings.

And, oh yeah! There's still a pandemic to contend with, its deadly spread currently surging at home and abroad.

By comparison to the nation, Utah's Election Day passed in a refreshingly genteel and decisive fashion, but not without its areas of intrigue. Some drama remains in the perpetually contested 4th Congressional District, but so far, the public statements of Rep. Ben McAdams and his Republican challenger Burgess Owens have been well-meaning and sportsmanlike.

(You may recall that after losing the seat in 2018, Republican Mia Love sorta-conceded in a seething rant that warned Utahns would pay a cost for electing "a wolf in sheep's clothing." Classy.)

To quickly state the necessary caveats: Utah's election results will not be officially finalized until the canvas of votes later this month. And nationally, battleground states are working through myriad electoral challenges that could delay or potentially alter the declaration of 2020's winners.

That said, a survey of the landscape as it currently stands suggests that 2121 will see a new, Democratic occupant in the White House and a Beehive State that is an ever-so-lighter shade of blue than before, albeit without easy answers for how either ended up that way.


The Big Picture
Utah's minority party appears to have expanded its legislative presence in the state by two state House seats, and it is within spitting distance of two more. Following similar gains made in 2018, the Utah Democratic Party is inching ever-closer to piercing the GOP's supermajority in the Legislature.

Crossing that threshold would be a tectonic shift, giving the often voiceless Democrats a critical bargaining chip in disputes between the legislative and executive branches—which are common—and frustrating the majority's penchant for veto-proof (and referendum-proof) legislation.

But if flipping seats were easy, they would have done it already. Races that the Utah GOP won by razor-thin margins two years ago remained out of Democratic reach on Election Day, and in some cases, slipped more comfortably into the incumbent Republicans' hands.

Republicans were as dominant as ever in statewide races, with Governor-elect Spencer Cox skating to victory and the state offices of auditor and treasurer filled by GOP candidates running effectively unopposed. Meanwhile, at press time, U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams, the lone Democrat in Utah's federal delegation, is scraping and clawing for a second term, and he may owe a debt of gratitude to a third-party spoiler if the final tally goes his way.

Utah Republican Party Chairman Derek Brown said the party is pleased with the results of the election and the high level of voter participation. "The issues our candidates focused on were varied—from clean air to education funding," Brown said, "and showed that they are responsive to the issues that voters care about."

Brown also complimented Cox and his opponent, Chris Petersen, for releasing a joint advertisement on civility and respect, a very Utahn 30-second spot that caught national attention after it was released last month. "As a party, we will follow the lead of Governor-elect Cox on those issues," Brown said, "and look forward to his leadership of our state."

Federal Shifts
Left-leaning observers hoping for a Democratic wave washing across the nation—their dreams fed by polling and electoral college models projecting a roaring victory for Joe Biden and his party—ran headfirst into the harsh reality of Nov. 3.

Far from a sweeping liberal mandate that both repudiates the toxic politics of Donald Trump and launches a new progressive era in America, Democrats won the White House but otherwise saw their majority in the House shrink and a Republican Senate poised to return in January, bringing Senate President Mitch McConnell and his salt-the-earth obstructionism with him.

click to enlarge trump.jpg

In Utah, there was little question that Trump would carry the Beehive State. But the relative strength of his performance here would impact down ballot races and reflect his broader prospects in the nation.

In 2016, Trump earned only 45.5% of the Utah vote, the worst showing of a Republican candidate in recent memory. Much of that can be explained by the candidacy of independent Evan McMullin, which gave Trump-skeptical conservatives an acceptable alternative to spare them the moral shame of voting for a liberal candidate.

But that skepticism clearly evaporated over the last four years. Faced with a more typical binary choice in 2020, Utah Republican voters returned to their party's nominee. As of this writing, Trump had secured 58% of the Utah vote, a swing of 13 percentage points in his favor.

Democrats looking for a silver lining in those numbers might point to Trump's still-below-average support compared to past Republican nominees (George Bush earned 71% of the Utah vote in 2004). And the minority party added more than 65,000 voters to its registration rolls between November 2018 and November 2020, an increase of 31.5% compared to 21.3% growth for the still-much-larger Utah Republican Party.

click to enlarge biden.jpg

Elsewhere in the water-is-wet category, incumbent congressmen Chris Stewart and John Curtis secured their reelections, and Republican Blake Moore claimed the 1st District seat previously held by Rob Bishop.

But in the solely competitive 4th Congressional District, Democrat Ben McAdams once against spent days neck and neck with his opponent, Burgess Owens. Despite some back and forth between the two, McAdams is predicted to benefit the most from late-arriving votes.

Interesting, though, is the presence of two third-party candidates in the 4th District race who won nearly 20,000 votes, more than enough to tip the scales if they had instead been cast for the major-party contenders. The Libertarian candidate, John Molnar, initially filed to run as a Republican but says he felt "driven out" by the party's internal machinery and contradictory priorities.

"There's a lot of people who probably look at it as me helping Ben McAdams win," Molnar said. "The way I see it is that Republicans just shot themselves in the foot."

Molnar pointed out that most of his votes come from Salt Lake County, where the bulk of McAdams' support lies in the district. He doesn't believe he cost Owens the election, and now that it appears Biden will win the presidency, Molnar said a Democratic congressman will be in a better position to get things done in Washington. "I'm a little hopeful that [Biden's win] will encourage McAdams to go ahead and make some reforms on marijuana laws," he said.

State Your Case

click to enlarge Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy:  Likely to lose a close race against Wendy Davis - UTGOV.COM
  • utgov.com
  • Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy: Likely to lose a close race against Wendy Davis

Members of the Utah Legislature went into the 2020 election with a bit of a black eye. After spending a significant amount of political capital overturning ballot initiatives on Medicaid and medical marijuana, lawmakers saw their proposed overhaul of the state's tax code go up in flames (twice) in the face of public pushback.

A bill raising the tax on food sales passed and then was hastily repealed earlier this year—in part to avoid a ballot referendum that could energize anti-incumbent sentiments. But the stink of defeat lingered into the campaign season, with reports of attack ads that disingenuously sought to punish Democrats and moderate Republicans for not doing enough to stop the tax bill.

Whether that dynamic helped push Democratic challengers over the top in two Salt Lake County legislative seats can't be definitely stated. But in something that feels like irony, two of the threatened incumbents—Reps. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, and Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville—had broken with their party to oppose the tax bill last year.

click to enlarge Should he lose, Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, will - be sorely missed by Sen. Todd Weiler - UTGOV.COM
  • utgov.com
  • Should he lose, Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, will be sorely missed by Sen. Todd Weiler

Eliason made a priority of suicide prevention legislation in the Legislature, while Dunnigan is a former member of House leadership who spearheaded the chamber's work on health insurance and who has a personal affinity for fireworks deregulation (his bills legalized aerial sales in the state and prohibit cities from fully banning pyrotechnic displays within their boundaries).

The leftward shift in their districts was not universal for Salt Lake County's competitive seats. Two other Republican lawmakers—Robert Spendlove and Cheryl Acton—were elected with only plurality support in 2018. But while their races show narrow margins, they do not appear to be in danger as the last votes roll in.

The Democratic gains have the effect of pushing the state's GOP majority further to the ideological right and away from the state's urban core. But the minority party can hardly be blamed for going after the few seats they have a chance of winning.

click to enlarge Minority Leader Rep. Brian King: Pleased with wins by Democrats - LIZABETHVERSE
  • Lizabethverse
  • Minority Leader Rep. Brian King: Pleased with wins by Democrats

"I'm pleased with the pickups we got," said House Minority Leader Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake. "Having more [Democrats] is more likely to result in somewhat better policies coming out of the Legislature."

After the election, Woods Cross Republican Sen. Todd Weiler publicly mourned the possible loss of his GOP House colleagues on Twitter, crediting them with being among the hardest working and most bipartisan legislators on Capitol Hill. In a since-deleted followup, Weiler said they were more deserving of reelection than he was, and that their swing-district constituents had cast votes based on distaste for Trump's presidency.

"They are long-standing veterans who are well liked and cross party lines," Weiler wrote. "It'll be devastating if we lose any of them."

Wendy Davis, who currently leads Eliason by fewer than 400 votes, described Weiler's comments as "insulting."

"It's really unfair to me as a candidate," she said. "I've worked really hard. We had a solid campaign."

click to enlarge Knocked on 1,500 doors: Presumed Representative-elect, Wendy Davis - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Knocked on 1,500 doors: Presumed Representative-elect, Wendy Davis

Davis—a first-time candidate who described education funding and the Legislature's rejection of publicly approved initiatives as motivations for her run—said that without traditional campaign events during the COVID-19 outbreak, her team relied on "brute" door-to-door politicking. "We knocked on 16,000 doors. I personally knocked on 1,500 doors," she said. "I talked to hundreds and hundreds of voters."

Only time will tell what lessons, if any, lawmakers learned from the debates over ballot initiatives and food taxes. The two men primarily responsible for those actions—House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams—were re-selected for their leadership positions last week without opposition.

And to further muddle a description of countywide and statewide political trends, Democrats solidified seats they flipped in 2018 and expanded their footprint in the Legislature. But Democrats also failed to secure a majority on the Salt Lake County Council or expand their presence outside the Interstate 215 Belt Route—two key goals of the minority party.

In Weber County, where Democrats hold one legislative seat, two House races narrowly won by Republicans in 2018 were comfortably claimed by the GOP incumbents this year. At the same time, the open Weber County seat in Senate District 19 saw its Republican advantage cut in half compared to 2016, a trajectory that, if extended, would present a tossup race in 2024.

Underlying of all the forecasting is the looming cloud of redistricting, which will begin in earnest next year.

There's no reason to expect the districts of tomorrow to look much or anything like the districts of today. And the GOP supermajority is positioned to draw the maps as they see fit—a voter-approved independent commission on redistricting was diminished by lawmakers earlier this year—staging the next decade of politics in the state.


Odds 'n' Ends
Headed to First-class Territory

In Utah County, voters clung to their commission form of government, rejecting a proposed move to a county mayor and council. While the change would have seen councilmembers elected to represent geographical districts, elections for the commissioners are held countywide, all but shutting out the possibility of minority representation.

The commission's three-person structure also bestows a thumb of Ceasar to whomever sits at the panel's ideological center, a tipping-point power that has stymied various policy discussions.

Proponents of a new government model argue that a mayor and council are better suited for the increasingly urbanized county, which has seen explosive population and development growth in recent years.

Utah County is knocking on the door of being designated a "county of the first class," a wonky bit of governmental legalese that, in plain terms, allows the state to single out Salt Lake County. A dam of state rules and regulations is poised to burst and flow over Point of the Mountain once population numbers there hit the first-class threshold.

Amended, and Approved

Seven constitutional amendments appeared on Utah's ballots this year, and voters in the Beehive State approved them all.

The content of those amendments range from the mundane (changing the start date of the annual legislative session) to the symbolic (repealing slavery as a form of punishment and updating to gender-neutral terminology) to more ideologically dubious changes.

With Amendment G, 54% of Utahns voted to end the earmarking of income tax revenue for public education, the effects of which may not be fully felt for decades. Despite Utah's last-in-the-nation ranking for school spending, lawmakers routinely use budgetary techniques to pull money out of education to spend in other areas, which they can now do with no restriction.

Voters also approved Amendment E by a commanding margin, enshrining the right to hunt and fish with constitutional protections. It's a solution in search of a problem, doing little more than jabbing the ribs of gun regulation proponents.

It's hard to fathom a scenario where Utah would restrict hunting and fishing. But hobbyists can presumably rest easier in the knowledge that their sport is elevated to the level of speech, religion and assembly. Perhaps constitutional protections for lacrosse, or needle point, will follow.


My Split With Utah's GOP
It's Not Me, It Was You

Dear Utah Republican Party,
It may be hard to believe, but I miss you.

I miss the sense of civic pride I got from voting in your primaries, attending your caucus meetings in college and representing my neighbors as a state delegate to your convention. Your love of this country is inspiring. Your love and caring for each other and the community you provide is right, good and important.

I still see the party I grew up supporting in my friends and family, and in the countless public servants who keep this state afloat.

I see it in most of the fine people who run for public office and, yes, I see it in quite a few of the ones who win. The ones who treat me and the profession I'm part of with respect. The ones who look me in the eye and answer the questions that need answering. The ones who aren't afraid of honesty, or truth, or the burden of responsible governance.

And that's why I can't ignore the rot that I've seen inside the party. There are some who would say it has overtaken you, but I refuse to believe that. I believe the toxins are superficial, that those who revel in division and anger remain on the fringes. Perhaps that's me ignoring reality, perhaps I got that from you. But I believe it all the same.

I see the rot in leaders who look us in the eyes and lie with a smile on their face. Leaders who turn up their noses at accountability, who force the press and their constituents—occasionally one and the same—to chase them down hallways like wasps. The ones who believe that to the victor go the spoils, and who act accordingly.

I can't explain what happened over the last four years. Only time will tell whether it was an aberration, or a bellwether. But I know that I was scared, nearly every day, in a way that I had never felt scared before. And I know that there are many people who felt that fear exponentially more acutely than I did, and for whom those fears were made manifest in painful, sometimes fatal, ways.

After I left you, I didn't join your rival. I've attended some of their meetings, mostly in a professional capacity. They're very welcoming. I can see the appeal. On balance, I suppose I cast my votes for their candidates more frequently than I do for yours, but not overwhelmingly.

I don't know what's going to happen now. Many of our most pressing challenges are outside partisan control. There is still much to fear.

But since Saturday, I haven't been scared. Not like before.

I'm waiting to see what you do. I'm anxiously waiting. I know there's a version of you that is essential—a check on the passions of your rivals that together make us what we are as a nation, as a people, as Americans.

That's why the changes within you create change within all of us. For good or for ill. So, I'm still scared, but not as much as before. Please, don't scare me again.

Sincerely,
Benjamin Wood
Journalist, Utahn and
Man Without a Party

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story showed a lower number of third-party votes in the 4th Congressional District race. That number has now grown to almost 20,000 votes in this very tight race. As new vote tallies are added, we will attempt to update this story.

Wendy Davis told City Weekly that she and her team knocked on 16,000 doors. A higher number was incorrectly reported in an earlier version of this story.

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Benjamin Wood

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