Can Democrats pick up a few seats? An analysis of competitive legislative races this year

Regardless of the votes in Utah’s 75 state House races this November, Republicans will remain in control when the Legislature meets in general session come January.
They hold a 59-16 super-majority, and there’s no way Democrats pick up 22 new seats in 2020 to reach a majority of 38.

But House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake, believes “we can get two or three” new seats in this year’s elections. With a little luck, upwards of eight or 10.
Of course, Republicans see things very differently.


Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs — the majority vice-chair of the Executive Appropriations Committee who as a side-gig oversees the House GOP PAC financials — believes it will be just the other way around: Republicans will pick up a few Democratic seats this election.

However, when you hold as many seats as Republicans do in the Utah House, you do tend to play more defense than offense.

After all, how many more Democratic seats can the Republicans take? They already hold so many, even doing well in Salt Lake County, which has been trending Democratic in recent elections.

Still, Derek Brown, state GOP chair, believes Republicans can pick up two Democratic House seats, if not more. He predicts Republican take-aways this year in an Ogden seat Democrats flipped in 2018 and an open Democratic seat in Magna.

King admits it’s a mixed bag in targeting vulnerable GOP representatives: The Republican incumbents you most likely can unseat are in districts that by their very political nature breed moderates, those Republicans most likely to join Democrats in critical, anti-arch-conservative votes, those who stand with you on air-quality or government reform or education funding or LGBTQ+ issues. It pays to have some sympathetic colleagues in the huge House Republican caucus.

Or maybe they are just personal friends of some House Democrats. “It’s a tightrope walk for us” politically, if not personally, King says.

But you have to put that all behind you for the greater goal — more influence on major budget, tax and spending issues, let alone Democratic social and educational goals that become more possible with a minority caucus of 25 or 30 members.

Following is an analysis of the current GOP-held House districts that Democrats believe they have a shot at in 2020, along with a few Democratic-held seats Republican bosses have their eyes on, gleaned from on-the-record and background discussions with leaders and members of both parties.

First off, it must be said most of the seats Democrats hope to “flip” are in Salt Lake County, mainly those along the west side from West Valley to the South.

Democrats also see two eastside south GOP districts that not too long ago were held by Democrats, but have been in the GOP column for a decade or so.

Yes, Democrats even like one multi-county district headquartered in Summit County, which itself is now leaning Democratic. District 54 is now held by Rep. Tim Quinn, R-Heber, who is retiring this year. But it’s a district Democrats have never won; maybe a bridge too far.

And Democrats believe they can hold on to Rep. Lou Shurtliff’s Ogden/South Ogden district, and maybe pick up another one bordering her District 10.

But the heart of the Democrats’ efforts will be in Salt Lake County, for sure. Very Republican Utah County and rural GOP seats to the east and south are basically out of reach, although King says some really good Democratic candidates down there in recent years have given some hope — but only hope for now.

Key to the Democrats’ Utah House take-aways lie with the relatively-unpopular Pres. Donald Trump in GOP-leaning suburbs — a problem the president faces across the nation.
And a win, even a close win, by freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams in the Salt Lake County portion of his District 4 — which runs along the central/western sides of Salt Lake County south of Salt Lake City — is also key. A big win there by McAdams (even if he loses his seat via a huge Utah County GOP vote for Republican Burgess Owens) could well drag along some Democratic votes for the down-ballot Utah House contests in those areas.

Money, as always, is important. But in this unique COVID-19-constrained election season it may not be critical.

In any case, it appears at this time Republicans have the edge there. First off, they are incumbents. And as such they have access to significant special interest donations that challenging Democrats just don’t have.

Utah has no legislative campaign donation limits; legislators can take tens of thousands of dollars in a single contribution, although such large donations in a House race are rare.
Besides that, the GOP House’s PAC has around $175,000 in it, with more fund raising planned. Moss says he will give House GOP candidates from $1,000 to $10,000 or more, depending on the need and the race.

The Democrats’ PAC has only around $40,000.

The leadership/membership PACs of the House GOP and Democratic caucuses are not the only available funds, of course.

Bad news for the Democrats is that Brown, the relatively-new chair of the Utah State Republican Party, has gotten the majority group back on track fund raising. He’s paid off considerable party debt and raised more than $200,000 this year. He’s spent a lot too, and only had $6,800 in cash just before the June primary filing. But the ability to raise money for the general election is clearly there. “I’m keeping my promise,” said Brown: He will raise enough money to give cash and help to legislative candidates, not ask them to give the financially-stressed state party money as has happened over the last decade.

By comparison, the state Democratic Party has raised $45,000 this year and had $32,000 in cash at the primary report.

Incumbent Democratic House members probably won’t have much trouble raising enough campaign cash to retain their seats. It’s the Democrats challenging the incumbent GOP representatives that are having fund-raising problems.

King and his fellow Democratic leaders are looking at around eight GOP incumbents who they see as vulnerable.

Looking “at just the (party and independent) numbers,” says King, “there are some seats” now held by Republicans in the county that should be Democratic. Unfortunately, says several leading Democrats, their candidates in those races have not been the best in recent years — but the 2020 crop could change that.

Here’s the Democratic hit list with the Republican incumbents’ 2018 victory numbers:

— Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, won by just 118 votes two years ago in District 38, 50.7-49.3 percent. Hutchings is an 18-year incumbent who has seen his district growing in minorities and political moderation. Hutchings is a moderate Republican, and well-liked by his Democratic colleagues. But will the “R” behind his name prove too much?

— Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, a freshman who won by 397 votes in 2018, District 43, 48.1 percent to 44.7 percent. A third-party candidate kept Acton, a conservative in a moderate area, from getting more than 50 percent of the vote.

— Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley, won by 464 votes two years ago, 52.9-47.1 percent over the Democrat in District 33. West Valley City is mixed politically, with their city fathers and/or legislators GOP moderates, if not Democrats. The website BestPlaces ranks West Valley as leaning Democratic.

— Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy. He won by 553 votes in 2018 in District 49, 48.5 percent to 45.6 percent, with a third-party candidate keeping him under 50 percent. Spendlove is an accomplished politician who raises a lot of cash and works hard. But his is one of the seats Democrats used to hold on the county’s southeast side.

— Rep. Steve Christensen, R-West Jordan, District 47. This seat was held by arch-conservative Ken Ivory, who resigned, and delegates picked Christensen, so this is his first general election. In 2018, Ivory won 53.6 percent to 46.4 percent, or by 899 votes. Democrats see this as basically an open seat.

The next three GOP Salt Lake County incumbents have had some relatively big wins in recent years, but Democrats still have some hope this year:

— Former West Valley mayor, now Rep. Mike Winder, won by 1,368 votes two years ago in District 30, 56.6 to 43.4 percent. But this is the district that was lost twice by a former GOP House member, so Democrats believe they have a shot. Winder, however, has raised a bunch of cash and worked hard in his two recent victories. District 30 has Democratic House members on two sides, and to the south is Hutchings’ District 38, seen as one of the more vulnerable Republicans.

— Democrats didn’t even run a candidate against Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, in 2018, a big mistake. But even though Eliason won in 2016, 55.1-44.9 percent, a 1,548 vote margin, this District 45 was held by Democrats in the recent past.

— Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, has proven too tough to beat by Democrats who have believed they have a shot at this District 39, which has become more moderate over time. Dunnigan won two years ago, 56.3 percent to 43.7 percent, with a 1,538-vote margin. However, Dunnigan has been the House GOP leader in fighting against Obamacare Medicaid expansion, which voters approved in a ballot initiative in 2018; Democrats just haven’t been able to take advantage on that issue.

Outside of Salt Lake County, Democrats are looking at Rep. Steve Waldrop, R-Eden. He won by only 214 votes two years ago in District 8, and trailed Democrat Deana Froerer in early vote tallies. However, there were some odd circumstances in that race. The incumbent, Rep. Gage Froerer, is a Republican who was on the 2018 ballot for Weber County commissioner (he won). And it could have been that many District 8 voters confused Deana Froerer with her uncle, Gage, and so voted for that Froerer, the Democrat.

Republicans, sources say, are looking at some of the traditional mid-Salt Lake County Democratic seats that they held, or came close to winning, in elections gone by.
However, top on their list is Rep. Lou Shurtliff, D-Ogden/South Ogden. Shurtliff held the seat 12 years ago, and came out of retirement to take the open seat in an upset in 2018. Prior to that, Republicans had held all Weber County/Ogden-area seats for years.

She won by 797 votes two years ago, 52.2 percent to 44.7 percent, in District 10.

Sources say that the Weber County Democratic Party and the state party basically ran Shurtliff’s 2018 election, as she is over 80 years old. King, however, defends Shurtliff, saying she is very active both physically and mentally and up to a tough re-election race this year.

“We win this seat,” predicts GOP Chair Brown, saying their candidate, Travis Campbell, who works in the state office of retiring U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, and knows the district well, will unseat Shurtliff after just one term.

In Salt Lake County, Republicans are looking at three Democrats, Reps. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, District 32; Karen Kwan, D-Murray, District 34; and the open seat of retiring Rep. Sue Duckworth, D-Magna, District 22.

Harrison lost to then-GOP Rep. LaVar Christensen by three votes in 2016 (3!). He ran for the Senate in 2018, losing. Harrison won the open seat by 2,374 votes, 56.26-42.15 percent. That is a big win, and she is well funded ($32,800 in cash at her pre-primary financial filing) again this year and a hard campaigner. Even though Republicans have held that seat recently, it was held by Democrats previously.

Kwan’s Murray seat, which also has a big chunk of Taylorsville, has gone back and forth between the parties in recent elections. She took the seat in 2016 and won big in 2018, by 2,340 votes, 60-40 percent. It will be an uphill climb for Republicans to win that seat back this year, although they’ve held it before.

The Duckworths (before Sue, the seat was held by her late husband, Carl) have held this Magna seat for two decades; the name well-known and respected in the area.
The Democratic candidate is Clare Collard, who has run unsuccessfully for the state Senate and state auditor previously, and is also well-known in Magna.
Brown believes while Republicans couldn’t unseat either Duckworth, the district has changed demographically and that GOP candidate Anthony Loubet is well-funded and appealing. Said Brown: We have a good chance at taking this one, too.

Republicans have made heavy runs at Reps. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, and Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, in recent elections. But not really come close.
Arent is retiring this year, but former U.S. House 4th District candidate Doug Owens is the Democratic candidate, well-funded and known. Arent won re-election in 2018 by 5,514 votes, 62.9 percent to 37.1 percent. Not close.

Carol Moss, who has held the seat since 2000, won by 4,681 votes two years ago, 62.8-37.2 percent. Also, not close.

Democratic legislators inside or near to Salt Lake City proper haven’t had serious GOP challenges in recent years. The city is very Democratic, with Democratic mayors since the mid-1970s.

How the 2020 legislative races turn out will be critical factors in the GOP-controlled Legislature’s redistricting next year.

While there is an independent redistricting commission — adopted in 2018 by voters — the 2020 Legislature reworked that law, taking away some of the attempted “guarantees” that would have restricted the Legislature from redrawing their own district boundaries to favor Republican incumbents and challengers.

If Democrats take away some GOP House seats this election, look for the majority Republicans in the 2021 redistricting to combine two incumbent House Democrats into one district (lawmakers must live in their districts to serve) in a few cases, and/or to redraw district lines to give Republicans a voter advantage from the 2022 elections through 2030 contests.