Utah Democrats should be wary of Bernie Sanders’ siren call

O, that way madness lies; let me shun that; No more of that. – King Lear Act 3, scene 4, 17–22

Utah Democrats can’t seem to let go of their one shining moment. When Bernie Sanders visited Utah last year ahead of the Democratic caucus preference election, it was a sensation for Utah’s minority party. People were paying attention to them for once.

A couple of days later, Democrats were crowing about their yuuge turnout at the election, where Bernie Sanders pulled in more than 62,000 votes.

Impressive? Kinda.

A path forward for the party? No.

Sanders’ vote total in 2016 was 13,000 fewer than Barack Obama scored in 2008 against Hillary Clinton. The overall turnout for Democrats in 2016 was still 52,000 fewer than those who voted in the 2008 Democratic primary.

Hell, Republican Ted Cruz got more than double the votes Sanders did last year.

That just proves that Sanders generated some excitement for Utah Democrats, but he didn’t have the broad appeal they need to win elections consistently in Utah.

Lots of light, not very much heat.

That’s why I read with mounting horror that the candidates for Utah Democratic Party Chair are listening to calls to push the party further to the left politically.

Utah is not a hotbed of latent progressivism just waiting to be unleashed on the Beehive State. Utah barely has a functional two-party system.

When was the last time the Utah Democrats were close to being relevant?

I daresay it was when Wayne Holland was party chair, and Democrats had at least a reasonable shot at breaking the Republican supermajority in the Legislature. Holland, a labor leader, was closely tied to Jim Matheson, who just happens to be the last Democrat to hold federal office.

That’s not a coincidence.

The Utah Democratic Party started drifting left after Holland stepped down in 2011 and was replaced by Jim Dabakis. Also, not a coincidence, Democrats started losing seats in the Legislature that year, leading to the current situation where they are at near-record lows on the Hill. They also haven’t won a statewide election since 1996 and currently hold zero seats in Congress.

I understand the impulse to try something different when what you’re doing isn’t working, but moving farther to the left will only reinforce the perception that Utah’s Democrats are out of touch with the rest of Utah.

I hate to break it to those advocating for a progressive utopia, but Utah is not a Democratic state and won’t be anytime soon. There are more than four times as many registered Republican voters in the state as there are Democrats. Moving down a more progressive path won’t begin to reverse those numbers.

There is an opportunity for Democrats to make some gains in Utah. Right now, the Utah GOP is dysfunctional and beholden to their radical fringe. Utah voters are not far-right zealots, but they vote for the Republican in elections because Democrats do not offer an attractive alternative. Being unabashedly progressive won’t help that.

Complicating matters this year is the tantalizing prospect of possibly winning a Congressional seat or two. Rep. Jason Chaffetz is stepping down, and Democrats are drooling over Kathryn Allen, who has absolutely zero chance of winning that seat. Democrats also are obsessed with knocking off Rep. Mia Love, who is facing another political newcomer next year. They’ll pour time and energy into those races when the focus should be on shoring up their numbers in the Utah Legislature. Even national Democrats don’t think winning a Congressional seat in deep red Utah is a possibility, which should tell you something.

Utah Democrats need to focus on the basics, which is winning legislative seats. If they can’t do that, the gerrymandering problem will get worse in 2021. They need bodies occupying seats on Capitol Hill to make sure they can fight to keep those seats in Democratic hands once the lines are redrawn.

The pendulum is swinging for Utah’s Democrats. Will they go left or back to the middle? One way lies relevance, the other obscurity.