The last Democrat from Utah to sit in the U.S. Senate was Frank Moss, who lost to Orrin Hatch in 1976. There is a plausible path for Democrats to retake that seat in 2018.
A lot of things would have to fall in place, but here’s how it could play out.
Former Gov. Jon Huntsman would have to return to Utah and run for the Senate as an independent instead of a Republican.
This is a definite possibility. Huntsman is rumored to be returning to Utah to run for the seat currently held by Hatch. Huntsman is a leader in the “no labels” movement, which advocates a non-partisan way to get things done in Washington and end the partisan gridlock, so an independent run is not out of the question.
It’s not for certain that Huntsman would run independently. With the signature-gathering route to the ballot under SB54, he could easily secure himself a place on the GOP primary ballot no matter what happens at the GOP convention. But, that would not guarantee his place in the general election. Primaries are a dangerous proposition. He might have to duke it out with multiple Republicans, including possibly Hatch. It would be much better for him to be an independent.
Plus, he’d be the most formidable independent candidate in Utah in quite some time. He has money, name recognition, left office with extremely high approval ratings, and his brother now owns the largest newspaper in the state. All of those are advantages no Utah independent candidate in recent history has enjoyed.
So, for this argument, let’s mark Huntsman down as an independent.
If Huntsman is on the ballot as an independent, it’s no stretch of the imagination that he would split the Republican vote, no matter who the GOP nominee is.
Let’s say Hatch decides to run again and emerges from the primary as the GOP nominee. There’s no guarantee that Republican voters would be hard pressed to pick between the two men. That indecision gets even worse if the GOP nominee is someone other than Hatch, like Evan McMullin, Josh Romney or Derek Miller.
A divided Republican vote would possibly create an opening for a Democrat to sneak in and grab an unexpected win. But it would have to be the right Democrat.
So, who would that be? It would have to be a Democratic candidate who could unify the Democratic vote, attract a significant percentage of the independent vote and peel off Republican votes too.
There are only two Democrats in Utah who fit that bill. Former Rep. Jim Matheson and current Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams. Both of those men have experience putting together the kind of electoral coalition it takes for Democrats to win major seats in Utah.
Given the three-way split in this hypothetical race between a Republican, a credible independent candidate and a competent Democrat, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
The Democrat might only need 40% of the vote to win. Democrats can usually count on winning between 30 and 35% statewide in Utah no matter who they run. Matheson or McAdams could easily pull that number. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to think either could attract another 5-10% of the vote.
With McAdams or Matheson on the ticket, you wouldn’t see many, if any Democrats jump ship to Huntsman or the Republican candidate.
The final result could look like this:
Matheson/McAdams – 40%
Huntsman – 35%
GOP candidate – 25%.
Not much margin for error for anyone in that equation.
McAdams just won re-election this year. He could run without having to step down from his office to run. It’s the same situation that allowed Peter Corroon to run for Governor against Gary Herbert in 2010.
A Matheson candidacy is a much iffier proposition. He seems to be settling into Washington life following his retirement from the House in 2014. He became a lobbyist with the firm of Squire Patton Boggs and was named CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperation Association.
But this whole scenario falls apart if Democrats decide to nominate someone like Mike Weinholtz or Misty Snow. Neither of those candidates crossed the 30% vote margin in 2016, meaning they don’t have the sort of broad, bi-partisan appeal they would need to pull off this electoral miracle.
Make no mistake; it would be a miracle. Hatch or another Republican could easily win, while it’s not hard to see how Huntsman could win the 2018 race as well.
But, if you throw all three of these elements into the electoral stew over the next two years, who knows what will happen when it’s done simmering.