The ‘Bernie Sanders Effect’ on Utah’s Democrats

Bernie SandersIf the polls are to be believed, Bernie Sanders is poised to win Utah’s Democratic presidential vote on Tuesday. While that may bolster the Vermont Senator’s chances against Hillary Clinton, it may not be the only impact he has on Utah’s political landscape.

Friday’s massive Bernie Sanders rally in Salt Lake City might be a warning to several incumbent Democrats that they may have a difficult time at this year’s convention. That scene was repeated on Monday afternoon at West Hight School.
There are five Legislative Democrats in Salt Lake City facing intraparty challenges from what appears to be the “Bernie Sanders” wing of the party. This is unusual because Utah Democrats have a reputation for being able to “clear the decks” for their incumbents, so that they don’t face primary elections. Democrats in Utah don’t like to deplete their limited resources on those contests.
The candidates being challenged from their political left are:
  • Susan Duckworth (District 22) is being challenged by Trudy Ellis.
  • Darin Mann filed to run against Rebecca Chavez-Houck (District 24).
  • Corey Thomas is taking on Mark Wheatley (District 35).
  • Carol Spackman Moss (District 37) is facing Aubrey Lucas.
  • Lynn Hemingway (District 40) is facing a challenge from Alexis Hall.
Three of the five, Chavez-Houck, Wheatley and Moss, have endorsed Hillary Clinton.
Those challengers are prominent supporters of Sanders on their social media accounts, and many told they are unabashedly in the Sanders camp. If Sanders wins the Democratic vote on Tuesday, it stands to reason that there will be a lot of Sanders voters at the neighborhood caucus meetings. It doesn’t take much effort to make the leap of logic to think those caucus goers will support like-minded potential Democratic delegates.
There were an estimated 14,000 attendees at This is the Place State Park on Friday and another 3,000 waiting to get in. Another 5,000 either attended or tried to get into the Monday rally at West High School. If those interlopers can harness the raw enthusiasm we saw on Friday and Monday, and get those supporters to the caucus meetings, it could be trouble – big trouble.
Think about it. If those Sanders supporters can get like-minded Utahns to attend the caucus meetings on Tuesday night, then get those supporters elected as delegates, they may be able to force a primary election in these races, or even win the Democratic nomination outright. 
The real danger for these incumbents comes through Utah’s antiquated and byzantine caucus and convention nominating system. Chavez-Houck is pursuing the signature gathering route, which would put her through to the primary, where the incumbent has an advantage. But Moss, Hemingway, Duckworth and Wheatley are not gathering signatures meaning their political fate will be decided by the delegates at the Salt Lake County Convention. 
It would be overly simplistic to say these five legislative candidates are running solely because of Sanders. But, they clearly are coming at these incumbent Democrats from their political left, and it could make them squirm a bit leading up to November. When was the last time any of these candidates faced a challenge from within their party, let alone the left?
Some Democrats are worried about this apparent “Sanders insurgency” in Utah because these candidates are organizing outside of the “normal” Utah Democratic Party apparatus. That’s why it could be effective. There aren’t that many Democrats in Utah, which is why the party is often an afterthought. It wouldn’t take much to gain some traction. After all, 14,000 Sanders supporters showed up on Friday. How many will show on Tuesday? The answer to that question could shape the Utah Democratic Party over the next couple of years.