The dream of Utah Republicans could become a nightmare for Democrats.
Mitt Romney, who enjoys superstar status among Utah politicians, appears a lock for the Republican presidential nomination, as Rick Santorum abandoned his campaign Tuesday with other contenders lagging far behind.
“I guess this means I have to take the Santorum bumper sticker off my car,” joked Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis.
You can forgive Dabakis if he was quietly rooting for Santorum. Romney’s popularity, particularly among LDS voters, could doom Democratic candidates further down the ballot this fall.
“I would expect that Romney securing the Republican nomination makes for an uphill battle for Democrats on the ticket,” said Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University. “Romney will bring massive numbers of people to the polls in the state, just because they have an opportunity for the first time to vote for a Mormon for president … and the candidates who that would help would be overwhelmingly Republican.”
Those coattails could have the most impact, Cann said, on Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson’s bid in Utah’s new 4th Congressional District. Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright is already chalking up the race as a GOP win.
“Jim Matheson is in trouble in 2012,” he said. “I don’t think the Jim Matheson race is even going to be close. This is going to be a loss for [him].”
Matheson contends Utahns are a more independent lot than Republican leaders assume.
“I believe that Utahns are very thoughtful when it comes to voting and look at the person, not the party,” the six-term representative said. “My record of election success proves that to be the case.”
Dabakis said he remains optimistic Democrats will fare well in November.
“The people of Utah have a long history of being independent-minded, and they are not just blindly going to pick a party tag and vote that way,” he said. “Wherever voters go at the top of the ticket, the 27 years of Republican domination of the state have left us with a huge mess.”
There is no doubting Romney’s pull in Utah.
In 2008, when he was chasing the GOP presidential nomination, he drew nearly 90 percent of the vote in Utah. More telling: In that primary, Romney alone received nearly three times the total number of votes that were cast for all of the contenders in 2000, the last time the GOP nomination had been contested.
“We should have about 105 percent voter turnout, that’s what I’m thinking,” said Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. “All those concerns about voter turnout, I think they’ll all be wiped away this year.”
Adam Brown, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, said the conventional wisdom that the Republican Romney-train will steamroll Utah Democrats might be too simplistic.
“Yeah, there are a lot of people in the state excited about Mitt Romney,” Brown said, “but does that mean Democrats aren’t going to be excited about beating Mitt Romney or keeping Barack Obama in?”
Turnout is typically solid in a presidential election, anyway, which blunts the advantage. The challenge for down-ticket Democrats will be breaking through the noise and giving the Romney devotees a reason to split their ticket and vote for a Democrat.
“We really have some great candidates,” Dabakis said. “I just hope their message doesn’t get lost in the Romney enthusiasm.”
One of the races that could be swayed is the Salt Lake County mayor’s contest, which changed hands from Republican to Democrat in 2004 and is an open seat in 2012.
Ross Romero, a Democratic state senator running for the mayor’s seat, plans to meet the Romney issue head-on.
“It’s going to be my job to inspire and call on dormant voters who are eligible and need to be engaged to actually vote,” Romero said. “I don’t know that we’re going to get very many Romney Republicans to cross over and vote for Democrats, but what I think we can do with my campaign is inspire new voters ... to get excited about my candidacy.”
In the process, he said, that will help other Democratic candidates all across the county.
Democratic state Sen. Ben McAdams, who is also seeking the mayor’s seat, is taking a different approach. He said that with Romney on the ballot, Democrats will need a candidate “who has a track record of attracting crossover support.”
But McAdams pointed to the 2004 election, when President George W. Bush won Salt Lake County and Democrat Peter Corroon won the county mayor’s seat.
“I do expect a spike in turnout and I do suspect there will be Democrats who vote for Romney,” McAdams said. “But Salt Lake County voters, in particular, have an independent streak, and I trust their ability to look at the candidate and make the best decision.”
Wright contends the enthusiasm Romney generates will inevitably help Republicans. “It’s going to be one of the largest, if not the largest, turnouts ever,” he predicted.
In swing legislative districts that Republicans lost by a thousand votes in the past, a couple of thousand new Romney supporters certainly could turn the tide.
Wright believes Democrats in Utah will be dispirited.
“People are going to turn out to send a message to Washington, D.C.,” he said. “And the Democrats on the ticket are going to pay the price for that.”