Dave Hansen is feeling a little weird. He isn’t running a political campaign this fall. There have been very few autumns over the past 50 years when Hansen hasn’t been deeply involved in getting someone elected.
The rough and tumble of elective politics has been a way of life for Hansen – for nearly his entire life. He hasn’t kept track of how many campaigns he’s managed, but they number in the dozens. However, even an old political warrior has to slow down at some point and play more golf.
Hansen has been deeply involved in politics since the 1970s. He’s had a few somewhat normal jobs, such as deputy lieutenant governor in the late ‘80s. He’s been executive director of both the Utah and Montana Republican parties, chair of the Utah GOP, political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and regional director for the Republican National Committee.
But those gigs were relatively short-lived, as they tend to be. Hansen has mostly been an itinerant political hired gun, although he has exclusively worked for Republicans. I’d guess Hansen has managed more political campaigns than any living Utahn, possibly more than anyone else in Utah history.
Hansen said he has no idea how his campaign management numbers stack up against others. “I just know I’ve been to more Lincoln Day dinners and county conventions in every corner of the state than I care to remember.”
He’s won most of his races, but lost some big ones. He’s run a number of Utah’s most high-profile campaigns. He’s known the thrill of political victory and the agony of defeat – many times. Like a veteran football coach, Hansen says it’s important to maintain an even keel, not get too high or too low.
Hansen isn’t officially retired, but he isn’t out hustling for work. He figures if someone needs his services they’ll give him a call.
One of Hansen’s most memorable campaigns was the re-election of Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012. It was two years after the ignominious defeat of Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010. Despite being very popular among the voting public, Bennett came in third at the state convention and was ousted from the race, a victim of the tea party uprising.
Hatch was up next, two years later, and the tea party was gunning for him. Hatch detractors said that even as Hatch achieved significant stature in Washington, he lost touch with Utah and had become a creature of Washington.
A poll of state delegates showed Hatch with only 26 percent support, even worse than Bennett’s approval when he lost. “I told Orrin that it wouldn’t be enough to woo the state delegates. We had to change the delegates -- get Hatch supporters to the party caucuses and elect new delegates.”
Thus began one of the most ambitious – and expensive – grassroots organizing efforts ever in Utah political history. The cost is pegged at upwards of $5 million, perhaps quite a bit more. Hansen’s ground game was remarkable, identifying Hatch supporters, motivating them attend caucuses, recruiting supporters to run as delegates, organizing voting precincts all across the state.
Hansen says the usual turnover of party delegates was 40-50 percent. That year, turnover was 81 percent, and Hatch emerged from the convention and went on to easily win re-election.
Asked how campaigning has changed from those days to today, Hansen is quick to say the human touch has been lost. Even before this year’s pandemic, which eliminated one-on-one campaigning, political campaigns began to rely more on social media than on grassroots organizing. “We used to develop a big volunteer base. We tried to organize every voting precinct with leaders who would run mini-campaigns in the precincts, contacting neighbors, doing voter ID, answering questions and distributing literature. We relied on county and state party organizations.”
Now, he said, campaigning is all about gathering email addresses and text numbers and knowing how to leverage social media. He acknowledges the importance of social media and digital campaigning, but does so a bit grudgingly. “When I get social media reports from my digital manager about how many opens and retweets and such I’m not sure if we’re really reaching the voters we want.”
As for the current presidential race, Hansen said, “Trump just offends me. He has no grace at all.” But he acknowledges that Trump “gets things done” and, once you get past all the nonsense, he’s governed mostly in a conservative way. If it’s entirely a referendum on Trump, then Trump loses, said Hansen. “But if it’s Trump vs. Biden, he may win.” Biden just seems old and lacking in vitality.
One of Hansen’s toughest losses was the 2018 Mia Love race against Ben McAdams in the 4th Congressional District. Love lost by 700 votes. While Hansen doesn’t shy away from taking the blame, he notes that the citizen initiative proposals on the ballot, especially Medicaid expansion and medical marijuana, really turned out the Democratic vote. And voting disorganization in Utah County dampened turnout in strong Republican areas.
McAdams will be difficult to beat this year, Hansen said. But improved turnout in Utah County and a more energized Republican base, will give Burgess Owens a reasonable chance. The GOP needs to nationalize the race so a vote against McAdams means a vote against liberal Democratic policies in Washington. Owens also needs to deal with the Democratic attacks on his character and past bankruptcies, Hansen said.