The opening song of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Populism Yea Yea, has a stanza that fits the Utah Democrats like a glove.
“Take a stand against the elite [Sigh]
They don’t care anything for us
And we will eat sweet democracy
And let them eat our dust.”
That populist theme came back again and again as candidates ticked off a list of “greatest political hits” that were sure to bring applause from the assembled Democratic delegates:
Education is important, and Utah needs to adequately fund public schools.
Climate change is real and Republicans are ignoring the threat.
Utah is ruled by a one-party system; decisions are made behind closed doors.
The Affordable Care Act is a great program, and Utah Republicans are ignoring the needy by refusing to expand Medicaid.
Utah needs a living wage and must find a way to reduce pay inequity
Utah’s dirty air is a disgrace and the Republican-controlled legislature won’t do anything to remedy the problem.
Those proclamations were red meat for the solidly blue crowd assembled at the Salt Palace on Saturday.
But, applause line rhetoric and winning elections are two very different things indeed.
The harsh truth is Utah Democrats have lost 28 statewide elections in a row, many by more than 30-points. It’s going to take a titanic shift in the state’s attitude to reverse that trend.
Democrats point to the overwhelming turnout at the March caucus that saw Bernie Sanders swamp Hillary Clinton. Democrats are hoping to ride that Sanders support to some victories in November.
Maybe, maybe not.
Most of the populist energy coming from Bernie Sanders supporters is rooted in a hatred of the Democratic party establishment, not just progressive ideals.
That was made evident right after the convention was gaveled to order as Sanders supporters attempted to force a vote on a rule requiring the state’s four “superdelegates” to vote for Bernie Sanders instead of the 50-50 split between Sanders and Hillary Clinton it is now. That effort was quickly quashed, and the Sanders supporters spent the next few hours lobbying anyone who would listen to their pleas, including a lengthy discussion with party chair Peter Corron, whom they cornered on the convention floor.
Democrats dodged a bullet as Mike Weinholtz handily defeated Vaughn Cook by an 80-20% margin to capture the nomination, avoiding a potentially costly primary election. In fact, the last time Democrats had a primary election for Governor was in 1992 when Stewart Hanson defeated Pat Shea. Now Weinholtz gets to conserve his precious resources while Republicans Gary Herbert and Jonathan Johnson battle each other in a June primary.
However, Weinholtz’s victory was muted somewhat by his surprise announcement on the convention floor that his wife, Donna, was under investigation for possession of marijuana. Weinholtz says his wife uses cannabis for medical purposes, but it’s unclear whether she will be facing criminal charges. The revelation could hamper his efforts to win the governor’s mansion for the Democrats for the first time since 1985. Party chair Peter Corroon says he did not know about the marijuana investigation before Weinholtz made the admission from the podium.
Democrats seemed unfazed by Weinholtz’s bombshell. Many thought it might play to his favor given a large number of Utahns who support legalizing medical marijuana while others worried criminal charges may end his candidacy before it starts.
The progressive/Bernie Sanders wing of the party did score an upset on Saturday, sending the heavily-favored U.S. Senate candidate Jonathan Swinton into a primary against Misty Snow, a transgendered candidate. Swinton was visibly annoyed there was a second round of voting against Snow, telling delegates that he was the best candidate to take on Mike Lee in November.
“I know it’s good to make a statement,” said Swinton. “But that statement should be that Mike Lee’s time in Washington is finished.”
The delegates did not listen to Swinton, instead sending him into a primary against Snow, who is a cashier at a grocery store. It’s not likely she will be able to defeat Swinton in a primary, who is better funded and more mainstream. But, that primary will cost Swinton time and, more importantly, money that he could desperately need in a general election matchup against Sen. Mike Lee.
The biggest question for Democrats is whether they will be able to keep the new, and passionate, progressives in the fold the rest of this year and beyond. Bernie Sanders will likely lose the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton – who is as perfect an embodiment of the Democratic establishment as there ever was.
Those progressives say they will stay involved. If they can move past the petty squabbles and get behind the more establishment candidates who prevailed this weekend, then that will help the party. If they can’t soothe the hurt feelings, it could be another long election season for Utah Democrats.