Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Utah Democrats on the Decline

Utah could be about to join a rather exclusive club – one that it belonged to briefly in the 1990s and 1980s.

After the Nov. 4 election, all of Utah’s delegation to Congress could be Republican – like 10 other states are today.

This assumes that Mia Love defeats Doug Owens in the 4th Congressional District.

Since 2000 the moderate-to-conservative Democrat Jim Matheson has held a seat in the U.S. House.

Always a thorn in Utah’s majority party, Republicans just were not able to defeat Matheson – although they came close twice.

In a new congressional district in 2012, Matheson held on to his seat by fewer than 800 votes. And he decided not to seek re-election this year.

From 1984 to 1986 Republicans held the two U.S. Senate seats and the three U.S. House seats.

When Owens’ father – the late Rep. Wayne Owens – announced he would try to take back his old 2nd Congressional District seat in 1986, Utah GOP leaders panicked.

Then GOP Rep. David Monson, R-Utah, was considered by some too much of a light-weight to win re-election against the savvy Wayne Owens.

The leaders talked Monson out of running again, in part by promising him a nice job back in Utah (which the leaders never delivered on.)

Unfortunately, the Republicans picked then-Salt Lake County Commissioner Tom Shimizu to run against Wayne Owens. The Democrat dispatched Shimizu easily.

In 1990, to about everyone’s surprise, then-unknown Democrat Bill Orton won in the very conservative 3rd Congressional District – after the GOP candidates self-destructed in what was one of the dirtiest, negative campaigns Utahns had ever seen.

And for a few years the Democrats held two of the three Utah U.S. House seats.

But from 1996 until 2000 Republicans won all the U.S. House seats in Utah – again blanking out the Democrats.

Matheson, like Doug Owens, a Democratic prodigy, then won the 2nd District open seat after the Republicans kicked out incumbent GOP Rep. Merrill Cook and ran a newcomer that had his own problems.

So like a few of our neighbors to the north – Idaho and Wyoming – with a win by Love in two weeks, Utah once again would be an all red state.

The highest-ranking Democrats would be Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker (in an officially non-partisan office) and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, in a partisan elected office.

Democrats would hold no state or federal offices outside of Salt Lake County (assuming no legislative upsets.)

Democrats would hold some county offices in Salt Lake, Summit, Carbon and Grand counties, if my count is correct.

Democrats are today down to just five of 29 state Senate seats (none outside of Salt Lake County) and just 17 of 75 House seats (none outside of Salt Lake County).

It would not be the absolute low-point for Democrats.

Not counting the nonpartisan Salt Lake City mayor’s office, in the 1980s the highest-ranking partisan office Democrats held was the late Salt Lake County Sheriff Pete Hayward.

But with a Doug Owens loss, Utah Democrats would be pretty sad off.

While Democrats are looking to make semi-permanent gains in western states like Nevada and Colorado, so far Utah is not on the list where Democrats are making inroads.

Just the opposite.

They are falling back in Utah.

I remember when pollster Dan Jones & Associates was finding that Utah’s political make-up was about 40 percent Republican, 35-40 percent Democratic and 20-25 percent independent.

Now Jones, as he’s started polling for this year, finds Republicans are about 47 percent of the population, Democrats just 16 percent, independents around 31 percent and other political parties around 5 percent.

All across this nation, Democrats are going after the Hispanic vote. And in places like California and Florida, it seems to be making a difference.

Utah Hispanics are not much different politically than their brethren in other areas.

Jones finds that among Utah Hispanics only 14 percent said they are Republicans, 69 percent said they are Democrats and 17 percent said they are independents.

Immigration is a big issue for many Hispanics. And national Republicans are doing little there to get that vote.

But there just aren’t enough Hispanics overall, and not enough in any geographic areas, to make a political difference.

Utah Democrats also have some hope among women and young adults.

Forty percent of women say they are Republicans; 21 percent are Democrats and 33 percent are independents.

And among those who are 25-34 years old, 43 percent are Republicans, 21 percent Democrats and 29 percent independents.

The problem for Utah Democratic leaders?

There aren’t enough Hispanics to make much of a different in elections statewide or in big geographic areas, like U.S. House races.

Yes, there are enough Hispanics in, say, West Valley, to turn a Utah House race or two. That assumes you can get out the Hispanic vote.

Utah Democrats have been running a number of female and Hispanic candidates in recent years, with mixed success.

It is always tough to beat incumbents, especially if that incumbent is a Republican in Utah.

Wayne Owens won his 1984 election in an open seat.

Republican Merrill Cook was defeated in a GOP primary; so Matheson won an open seat in 2000.

If Love wins the 4th District this year, she’s the odds on favorite to win re-election in 2016, 2018 and 2020.

2021 brings the redrawings of all Utah legislative and U.S. House seats.

And without a Democratic (like Matheson in 2001 and 2011) incumbent in the U.S. House, GOP lawmakers (who almost certainly will still be in the majority in the 2021 Legislature) will find themselves redrawing Utah’s four U.S. House seats (there’s an outside chance Utah could get a fifth U.S. House seat in the 2020 Census) trying to harm Democrats, while protecting all of their incumbents.

A Doug Owens upset of Love in two weeks could keep one, lonely, blue U.S. House seat in Utah.

But odds tell me Utah will be all red – like times back in the 1980s and 1990s.

With a demoralized Utah Democratic Party looking, once again, for some way to make inroads in very conservative Utah.