Gehrke: Elizabeth Warren isn’t the first, and won’t be last White House hopeful to visit Utah. Here’s why.

Robert Gehrke

When you think about it, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that the road to the Democratic presidential nomination would go through Utah or that, realistically, it would even be a pit stop.

But thanks to the completely bizarre Game-of-Thrones-style world of nominating politics, Utah will be a regular stop-over for the slew of candidates competing to be the Democrat to take on President Donald Trump in 2020 — and then get crushed in the Beehive State.

So why are they bothering to come here?

This past session, the Utah Legislature made two key changes, both of them helping to assure Utah’s voters have at least a little bit of a say in choosing their party’s nominees. SB242, sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, changes Utah’s nominating system from a party-sponsored caucus (remember those crazy long lines in 2016?) to a statewide primary.

More importantly, the bill moves Utah’s presidential primary up to March 3, where it will join 11 other states holding their nominating contests on what is called “Super Tuesday.”

While Utah is a small piece of that Super Tuesday field, at that critical juncture candidates can’t ignore a single delegate.

So, instead of having candidates fly into town to scoop up whatever money they can — as we saw Hillary Clinton do in 2016 — Utahns will get a chance to hear from the contenders, like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren who is holding a campaign rally in downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday evening.

Warren isn’t the first Democratic contender to visit the state — former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro and former Maryland Sen. John Delaney have already been through — and she surely won’t be the last.

“A number of the campaigns have already been reaching out to figure out when will be the best time” to come to the state, said Utah Democratic Party Chairwoman Daisy Thomas. “We will definitely be receiving almost all of them — if not all of the candidates — this year.”

And with more than 50,000 people running for the Democratic nomination, maybe we’ve finally plugged that hole left when the Outdoor Retailer show left for Colorado.

That’s an exaggeration. But it’s also a far cry from what we saw in 2016, when the parties held caucuses late in March. By then, both contests were practically locked up.

Even then, desperation brought Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich out to try to stop Trump, who popped into town, too. And Sanders, grasping for anything to keep his campaign viable, came to town twice, turning out one of the largest crowds the state has seen for a political event.

Caucus turnout demolished expectations as Utah went for Cruz and Sanders — and it barely made any difference.

In 2020, of course, there won’t be much action on the Republican side. Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson said that, with “a presumptive coronation for President Trump,” it didn’t make sense for the party to raise the money to pay for the caucuses. (Taxpayers will pay $2.5 million to conduct the primary.)

The Trump campaign was fine with the change and Anderson said he thought holding Utah’s primary on Super Tuesday “would put Utah on the map.”

Thomas, his Democratic counterpart, agrees.

“Now that we’re part of Super Tuesday, we’re much more part of the conversation for these presidential candidates,” she said. “They’re going to all be working for every single delegate vote and making sure they’re coming and hitting Utah and talking to real Utahns across the state.”

That forces candidates to address issues important to Utah and the West. Just this week, ahead of a visit to Colorado and Utah, Warren rolled out a policy proposal focused on protecting public lands, repairing dilapidated national parks, and restoring the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Part of Warren’s proposal is an executive order banning any new fossil fuel development on public lands. It’s a radical idea to contend there’s nowhere in the 600 million acres of federal land in the West appropriate for oil and gas development and that the president has the unilateral power to shut it down.

But the important part is that Warren is talking about these Utah issues and other Democratic contenders will have to do the same over the next 10 months — that can only be good for our state.