It’s not just the fact that Utah’s Democrats are down to just 12 members in the House that is so shocking, it’s the cruel way it happened.
Three seats they thought they had won flipped to the Republicans after the vote by mail and same-day ballots were counted. They went from a gain of one seat in the House to a loss of two.
Even more concerning is all of these seats were held by Democrats after the 2012 election, but flipped to GOP control. Consider:
House 30 went from a +5 Democrat seat in 2012 to a +1 Republican advantage for Fred Cox.
House 31 flipped from a +1 Democrat advantage in 2012 to +1 for Republican Sophia DiCaro.
House 44 went from +13 Democrat in 2012 to barely +1 Republican this year.
The fact that they couldn’t hang on to what were essentially 3 swing seats (Larry Wiley barely won his race in 2012) does not bode well for the future. All three of these Democrats were good candidates, but they couldn’t prevail in elections that were winnable.
Granted, midterm elections usually aren’t kind to Democrats. The electorate is smaller, older and more Republican. But, Utah’s Democratic party poured tons of time and money into reversing that trend. They registered new voters and worked dilligently to get them to the polls. It didn’t work because they lost nearly every race they were targeting.
Look at this chart showing the fortunes of Utah Democrats in the House since 2000. Their numbers have dropped precipitously since 2008 when their caucus was a robust 22 members. That’s a 45% drop over the last three elections.
If this doesn’t spark an existential crisis for the party, nothing will.
A big part of the blame here can be laid directly at the feet of former party chair Jim Dabakis who seemingly lost all interest in running the party the moment he took over the Senate seat from Ben McAdams. Yes, he raised a lot of money for the party, but he left it rudderless between taking office and the time he resigned for health reasons.
Something clearly needs to change at Democratic headquarters.
Simply put, Utahns are not buying what the Democratic party is selling.
The instinct is for Democrats to completely freak out, and I understand that impulse. But, there is an opportunity for some real reflection if they can avoid the knee-jerk reaction.
For years there has been a push and pull among Utah’s Democrats about what identity the party should take.
There is a wing that has convinced themselves that Utah’s Democrats are simply “Republican lite” which is not much of a choice at all. All they have to do is put up candidates who are progressive and give Utahns a “real choice.” That, they reason, will point out how flawed the GOP policies are and give the residents of this state a reason to vote Democrat.
They’ve got part of that equation right. The party needs to come up with a clear reason for Utahns to cast their ballot for them. Because, right now, there’s not.
The uncomfortable reality for Democrats is the party has been woefully out of step with the majority of the state for quite some time. Most of the energy (and money) in the party has been tied up in the fight for marriage equality. For example, after the Supreme Court declined to hear Utah’s appeal of the ruling striking down Amendment 3, we found that 58% of Utahns disagreed with that move. However, 86% of Democrats hailed the decision.
For better or worse, Utah’s Democrats are inexorably linked to same-sex marriage, which has alienated them from the rest of the state. Now that the fight is over, what happens now?
Maybe it’s time for the party to look at what works. In order to win big elections, they need Republicans and independent voters to feel comfortable pulling the lever for them. Progressives don’t want to hear this, but that means finding more candidates like Jim Matheson and Ben McAdams. Yes, that would mean being more pragmatic and less idealistic.
We’ve seen what idealism gets you – the smallest minority in recent memory.