Along with picking candidates for November’s elections, Utah’s Democrats will select a new leader this Saturday.
Sen. Jim Dabakis stepped down suddenly as chairman of the Utah Democratic Party in March, leaving two men vying to replace him - Former Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon and BYU professor, and former head of the Utah County Democratic Party, Richard Davis.
Whoever wins, taking over Utah’s minority party is a tall task. Democrats are near historic lows on Utah’s Capitol Hill, with no members from outside of Salt Lake County. The party has also lost 26 statewide elections in a row.
Both Corroon and Davis say the party needs to shift its focus in order to win back the kind of mainstream voters they used to appeal to.
“We need to focus on ‘bread and butter issues’ like education,” says Corroon. “The Republican party has shown they will never adequately fund our education system. Democrats need to start winning in order change that.”
Davis agrees that Utah’s Democrats need to hit the reset button.
“The Democrats in Utah are more mainstream than the Republicans, but they are not seen as mainstream,” he says. “The perception is the Democratic party is the party of gay marriage. That’s because Jim Dabakis talked about that issue again and again. I want to communicate to voters that gay marriage isn’t even in the party platform.”
Both men say Utah’s Democratic party is a “big tent,” with room for everyone - even though that hasn’t been the case in the past few years. Much of the party’s grassroots were upset with Jim Matheson’s voting record, which often went against his party, so much so that they forced him into a primary election against Claudia Wright.
Corroon bemoans what he calls “litmus test” issues that party stalwarts use to determine who is a “real Democrat” and who is a DINO (Democrat in Name Only).
“These are not issues that affect Utahns and their every day lives. We need to talk about education and labor unions and Medicaid expansion and strengthening the middle class.”
Davis says the party needs to re-embrace its roots.
“We need to reach out to the mainstream voter like we were able to in the day of Cal Rampton and Scott Matheson. If you focus on positions that are opposed by most voters, then it should come as no surprise when you’re rejected.”
Both men also like to trot out that hoary appeal popular with Utah Democrats - “balance” in government. But, to break the Republican hegemony on Captiol Hill, Democrats are going to have to do more than plead.
“Voters just don’t see the Democrats as their party,” says Davis. “Republicans are seen as the party that will help people who are struggling financially. They don’t do it, but they are seen that way. We need to send a message that a vote for Democrats is a vote to solve problems. Republicans only solve those problems reluctantly.”
“We’re not gonna change Utah overnight,” says Corroon. “We have to send a message that it’s okay to be proud to be a Democrat.”
Davis and Corroon both see an opportunity for Utah’s Democrats to become relevant again. Right now, they are an afterthought on the Hill, only passing measures the Republicans want to pass. Such is the luxury of a super majority.
Breaking through that wall is going to take a Hurcluean effort.
Corroon aptly sums up the road ahead for Utah’s Democrats.
“It’s like trying to climb Mt. Everest.”