Rep.-elect Jerry Anderson, R-Price, recounts an old saying about Utah’s coal country: “Democrats meet at the courthouse; Republicans meet in the phone booth.”
Mike Dmitrich, a retired Democratic legislator who represented Carbon County and surrounding areas for 40 years, recalls the oft-repeated lore that the last Republican elected in Carbon — until recently — was back in the 1940s “and he was shot in office.”
Times have changed.
More Republicans than Democrats are now registered in Carbon County. The GOP holds a majority on the County Commission. And Anderson last week defeated incumbent Rep. Christine Watkins, D-Price — as Democrats lost the last Utah legislative seat they held outside of Salt Lake County.
With that, the 2013 Utah Legislature — which will be 81.7 percent GOP overall — will be the second-most Republican of the last 80 years, according to Brigham Young University political science professor Adam Brown. It is behind only the 84.5 percent majority that Republicans held in 1967.
Every one of the 19 Democrats left on Capitol Hill after the Nov. 6 election represents some part of Salt Lake County.
Gerrymandering • Democrats blame their sliding numbers largely on gerrymandering of district boundaries by Republican majorities. But the GOP argues that it comes simply because Utahns — especially in rural areas — are conservative and drawn more to their party because of its stands on social issues and its more pro-development positions on public-lands ranching, mining and oil drilling.
Democrats are trying to figure how to reverse the trend. They take some encouragement from Utah history — where both parties at different times held huge majorities only to lose them a short time later.
“This is a direct result of gerrymandering,” says Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis. He notes Republicans won 61 percent of the total combined vote in Utah’s four congressional races. But not only did the GOP win three of those four U.S. House seats, but will hold a 61-14 edge in the Utah House (81.3 percent Republican) and a 24-5 margin in the Senate (82.8 percent Republican).
A Salt Lake Tribune analysis of election results show the median margin in Utah House races was 72 percent to 28 percent for Republicans, and in the Senate was 80 percent to 20 percent.
“Those numbers are prima facie [self-evident] evidence of gerrymandering by Republicans,” Dabakis says. “They have far more offices than they deserve from the votes they received because of how they twisted boundaries.”
“It’s not because of redistricting,” says Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright. “It’s totally demographics and the fact that rural Utahns, especially, are conservative and find more in common with the Republican platform than they do with the Democratic.”
Anderson said both redistricting and demographic shifts contributed to his coal-country win over Watkins by a close 51-49 percent margin.
He said his district was redrawn to add much of agricultural Duchesne County, “which is quite heavily conservative. That quite closely balanced out the Democratic vote in Carbon County,” where coal miners had traditional ties to unions and the Democratic Party.
Growing conservatism • But Anderson said the area is becoming more conservative, too, and drawn to the more conservative GOP. “We actually have more registered Republicans in Carbon County than Democrats right now, and two of the three county commissioners are Republicans.”
Dmitrich said one reason is “Carbon County is no longer a union county. There is only one coal mine left that is union.”
There’s also a growing view that GOP pro-development stances may be better for coal, said Anderson. He said that was shown by campaign signs that said, “Vote coal — get rid of Obama.”
The day after the election coal magnate Bob Murray laid off 102 miners at his West Ridge mine, blaming Obama’s “war on coal.”
While Dmitrich says redistricting is likely the key factor in losing Watkins’ seat, he concedes that environmental stands by national Democrats have hurt and he said the national party’s more liberal stands on things from abortion to gun control hurt in other Utah areas recently.
“We used to control Ogden and Weber County, but lost it” largely because of national liberal stands by his party as the area became more conservative, he said. “And we used to control Tooele County, and lost it. Now we’ve lost coal country,” Dmitrich said.
Democrats last held legislative majorities in the Utah House in 1975, and in the Utah Senate in 1977.
Wright notes that urban areas where the Democratic Party has done well historically have had slow growth in recent decades, while rural and suburban areas that support the GOP more have seen faster growth — so they have been gaining legislative seats. He said that has more to do with GOP gains than any gerrymandering.
Mormon compatibility • Dabakis says he knows his party must make a case that it is not too liberal, and also that its stands are compatible with beliefs of the state’s heavily Mormon population — especially in rural areas that are more LDS than urban areas.
“Democrats are completely compatible with LDS ideas, and given the [Republicans’] dramatic move to the right over the last few years, LDS people are probably better represented by Democrats because they are more moderate,” Dabakis argued.
A 2004 state government history of elections show shifts of control in the Legislature can come fast, which may give Democrats some hope. For example, it said Democrats held all Utah Senate seats in 1897, but the party lost control by 1903. On the other hand, Republicans held 95 percent of Utah Senate seats in 1927, and lost its majority two years later.
Wright said that is not lost on Republicans.
“It’s a mandate when you have over 80 percent of the Legislature being Republican, and the people are saying, ‘We trust you,’ ” he said. “If we use the trust appropriately, I think the trend [of growing GOP majorities] will continue. If we misuse the trust, then we stand in jeopardy of losing seats over time.”
2013 Utah Legislature majorities
House • 61-14 for Republicans, 81.3 percent — second-highest in the past 80 years, behind 85.5 percent in 1967.
Senate • 24-5 for Republicans, 82.8 percent — matches the previous record for the past 80 years, in 1983.