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Could Donald Trump turn Utah blue? Democrats think this might be their year

First Published      Last Updated Aug 01 2016 08:37 am


Election » Republicans say Clinton win in Utah is wishful thinking — “Never going to happen.”

Philadelphia • A year ago, it would have been laughable to even suggest Democrats could take Utah in a presidential race.

It has been more than two generations — 52 years — since the Beehive State went blue and only once in subsequent presidential elections has the Democratic nominee won more than a third of the state's vote — and only by a whisker. Then-Sen. Barack Obama got 34 percent in 2008.

Still, with Donald Trump — a brash businessman who questioned the faith of Mormon icon Mitt Romney — heading the GOP ticket, some Democrats hope that reliably red Utah could be in play this November.




That's especially true now after the national party conventions, reinforcing the conservative resistance to Trump and the growing Democratic unification around Hillary Clinton.

"It is totally understandable given Donald Trump's temperament and complete lack of qualifications and fitness for the office of the presidency that the people of Utah would be looking for an alternative, including Hillary Clinton," Jake Sullivan, senior policy adviser for the Democratic nominee, told The Salt Lake Tribune last week.

Adding to such speculation, two nationally recognized political handicappers recently moved Utah from the safe Republican column to the likely Republican column.

Republicans, though, brush off talk of Utah voting for anyone other than the GOP nominee as nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of Democrats.

"That's never going to happen. Never going to happen," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said. "It just won't go that way."

A Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute poll in June showed Clinton and Trump tied at 35 percent each, with Libertarian Gary Johnson carrying 13 percent, and 16 percent of voters undecided.

Another survey, conducted in late May and early June by Florida-based Gravis Marketing, found Trump with 29 percent in Utah, Clinton with 26 percent and Johnson, 16 percent. Some 29 percent simply picked "other."

That's a remarkable switch from four years ago when Romney, an adopted Utah son who now lives in the state, snagged nearly 73 percent of Beehive State votes, leaving President Obama with 25 percent, the lowest percentage for Democrats in the state since 1992.

Romney, the first Mormon atop a major-party ticket, was an outlier in the LDS-dominated state, but one other Republican fared even better. In 1980, Ronald Reagan scooped up 78 percent of the Utah vote against President Jimmy Carter's 22 percent, and Reagan hit 75 percent four years later when running against former Vice President Walter Mondale.

Still, this year, Democrats believe change is in the air.

Bleeding red • Utah has been called a blood-red state, though parts of it have turned more purple, including Salt Lake County, where voters have elected a Democrat as county mayor for a dozen years. Obama narrowly outpolled Republican John McCain, R-Ariz., there in 2008, and in 2004, Democratic governor candidate Scott Matheson Jr. picked up 20,000 more votes than Republican Jon Huntsman. McCain and Huntsman scored big wins statewide.

Current Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams says Utah voters are independent minded "so anything could happen" in the presidential election, adding that it's clear voters are not infatuated with Trump's style.

"Donald Trump doesn't reflect the values of Utah voters," McAdams said. "This election could reshape the landscape in Utah for years to come."

Both national campaigns clearly have bigger targets than Utah, with its population of 3 million. It won't be considered a swing state.

But Sullivan, the Clinton campaign adviser, said, "From our perspective, we're not simply throwing our hands up and walking away.

"We think that the people of Utah can find in Hillary Clinton someone who can be a credible commander in chief and a good president, and we would urge everyone there to give her a hard look, even if they've never supported a Democrat before."

The Clinton camp is dispatching former President Bill Clinton to Utah in August to raise funds for the campaign, and Utah supporters hope he'll also hold a public rally to boost his wife in the state.

Romney, a wildly popular figure in Utah, said in March that he opposed Trump and would not vote for him. In a move almost unheard of in party politics, Romney chastised his eventual successor as Republican nominee, as a "phony, a fraud."

"His domestic policies would lead to recession," Romney warned during his speech at the University of Utah. "His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill."

Although intended to boost the prospects of Trump's rivals in the GOP primaries, Romney's vocal disdain of the billionaire TV celebrity may end up helping the Democrats' cause. Clips of Romney's speech were shown last week at the Democratic National Convention — leaving out the part in which he said "a person so untrustworthy and dishonest as Hillary Clinton must not become president."

Romney's attack on Trump drew retaliation from the GOP nominee, who later questioned if Romney was a good Mormon during a rally in Salt Lake City in April.

Add to that Trump's call for a complete ban on allowing any Muslims, a faith of 1.6 billion people worldwide, from entering the United States. It didn't sit well with Mormons, whose own minority religion has faced prejudice and persecution.

To have a shot at winning Utah, Clinton is going to need to sway the vast majority of unaffiliated voters to counter the GOP's dominance in the state. Registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by more than 4-to-1 in Utah. But so do unaffiliated voters — there are more than 580,000 of them on voter rolls.

While Trump remains a polarizing figure for many in Utah, the Clinton name, too, is divisive.

Coming in third • In 1992, as the nation elected a young governor from Arkansas to the White House, Utah went the other way, voting unsuccessfully to re-elect President George H.W. Bush. That year, Utah gained attention as the only state where Bill Clinton finished third, behind Ross Perot, the outsider independent candidate and Texas billionaire.

Four years later, Clinton stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and used his unilateral, executive power to designate the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in neighboring Utah. State leaders had learned of the move only hours before the announcement.

Kansas Sen. Bob Dole bested Clinton 54 percent to 33 percent in Utah that year, while losing the national election by a convincing margin, and Utah's only Democratic member of Congress, Bill Orton, lost re-election, blaming Clinton's monument.

"That's just another major example of where Utahns don't like the Democratic philosophy that Washington, D.C., knows best and [says], 'We're going to shove stuff down your throat like it or not,'" says Don Peay, a prominent and influential Trump supporter in Utah.

"Utah's not going to vote for Hillary Clinton as a majority," Peay added, noting that Utahns would rather trust Trump to fill U.S. Supreme Court vacancies.

Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans went further, saying it won't be close. Announcing Utah's delegate votes at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Evans assured the partisan crowd that Trump would win his biggest margin of victory in Utah and that the state would be Republican "forever."

tburr@sltrib.com

 

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