Election turning dreadful for Utah Democrats

What started out as a really good election night on Nov. 3 for Salt Lake County Democrats is turning into some big disappointments as more and more ballots are being counted.

It appeared that Salt Lake County — by far the state’s largest in population and political influence — would re-elect U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams to Congress, take at least three Utah House seats away from incumbent Republicans and re-elect several county government Democrats to their posts.

But as of this past weekend, with only a handful of ballots yet to be counted, it appears:

McAdams will lose to GOP challenger Burgess Owens, making Utah’s federal delegation once again all Republican. The loss, if it is finally confirmed by an official canvass Tuesday, will have drastic ramifications for Utah Democrats in the 2021 legislative redistricting effort by Republicans.

— Salt Lake County At-large Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani is behind Republican challenger Laurie Stringham. If Ghorbani loses, the nine-member council will move to a 6-3 majority for Republicans. And while it is not often that blunt partisan politics is a major player in council decisions, it still puts Democratic County Mayor Jenny Wilson — whose lead over her Republican challenger this year has also dwindled as more votes were counted — in a less-strong political position. It’s likely Wilson will still win after all the votes are counted.

— On election night it appeared three Utah House Republicans were going to lose their seats to Democrats in the county. And perhaps another GOP incumbent in Sandy could lose his seat if Democratic votes came in against him as the counting proceeded.

But as counting continued, two of those overcame their Democratic challengers, coming from behind to take the lead.

It appears the only Democratic gain will be the seat of long-time GOP Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, who remains around 380 votes behind.

Before the election — when some were predicting a “Blue Wave” in Utah this year — Democratic House minority leaders were hoping for gains of five to seven Utah House seats, with Salt Lake County victories leading the way.

The biggest loss, of course, is McAdams who, while tight in final polls with Owens, had a several thousand vote lead on Election Night, with the hope that a big Salt Lake County voter turn-out for him would overcome the heavily Republican majorities in the Utah County portion of the 4th Congressional District.

But McAdams hasn’t been making up enough votes on Owens in Salt Lake County — as Utah County and parts of two much smaller southern counties in the 4th District went heavily for Owens. As of Friday’s last vote drop, Owens is ahead by 2,095 votes the Salt Lake Tribune reports.

The state’s final canvass is Tuesday.

 Meanwhile, Hutchings is behind Democrat Ashlee Matthews in House District 38 by 381 votes, or 51.61 percent to 48.39 percent. There probable aren’t enough uncounted votes for him to make that up. Hutchings was considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the 75-member House, as his Kearns-based district has become more and more progressive over the years.

But turning around their early vote deficits were Reps. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, and Steve Eliason, R-Sandy.

Both incumbents were behind on Election Night, and for several days afterwards. But as more votes were counted they closed on their Democratic challengers, and then passed them.

As of Friday, in House District 39 Dunnigan leads Democrat Lynette Wendel by just 82 votes, while Eliason leads Democrat Wendy Davis by just 78 votes in House District 45.

Again, it is unclear how many uncounted votes there are in either district. But those narrow victory margins may well hold up.

Democrats did hold their few seats up for election in the Utah Senate; no change in majority/minority numbers there at all. It remains a 23-6 supermajority for Republicans.

Democrats may be up only one seat in the Utah House, going from 16 members to 17, with Republicans holding a 58 supermajority. Democrats held Rep. Lou Shurtliff’s Ogden-based House district, the only minority party seat outside of Salt Lake County.

Owens taking the 4th District means in the 2021 redistricting, overseen by the majority Republicans in the Utah Legislature, the GOP lawmakers will likely try to redraw Utah’s four U.S. House districts to protect all four Republican incumbents.

There had been some thoughts that if McAdams had a huge win this year in the 4th District, Republican bosses might just throw a bone to the Democrats and make one Salt Lake City-based district more competitive, and draw the other three districts very GOP-based, thus protecting those incumbents.

But that’s all gone now with Owens as a potentially-vulnerable freshman in 2022. Somehow the 4th District may be be carved out to include even more GOP voters — likely by moving it more into Utah County (a really safe Republican haven) and/or more into very-red rural Utah.

While the Salt Lake County portion of the 4th District apparently didn’t carry the day enough for McAdams (he did win by around 52 percent of the vote, but needed more), it did for Democratic President-elect Joe Biden. In the county, Biden won 53.06 percent of the vote to President Donald Trump’s 42.10 percent, or a victory of 59,734 as of Friday. Trump easily won Utah’s six Electoral College votes, however.

It is one of the rare times the GOP presidential candidate didn’t carry the state’s largest county.

But as we’ve seen across the United States, many anti-Trump voters clearly voted split-ticket: They voted against the president but in favor of down-ballot Republicans — thus the apparent come-from-behind victories for several Utah House GOP incumbents and for Stringham over Ghorbani.