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Robert Gehrke: Five takeaways from this election and one prediction for the next one

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Some of the 2020 votes are still being counted but, for the most part, the races are largely decided and we can start sorting through some of the numbers to figure out what it all means.

Just how popular — or unpopular — was President Donald Trump in the Beehive State? What went wrong for Burgess Owens? And what comes next for Utah Democrats?

Here are a few thoughts and a prediction on the heels of a historic election.

Trump still lagged in Utah

The speculation heading into this election didn’t really revolve around whether Trump would win Utah — of course he was going to. The question was, by how much?

Through Friday, he was still hovering around 58%. That is far better than the 45% he got four years ago, but that is due in large part to not having to contend with a third-party never-Trumper in Evan McMullin.

So what can we say about Trump’s performance? Well, for one thing, he is currently 6 points behind Gov.-elect Spencer Cox.

But it’s also telling that, except for the two elections in the 1990s when third-party candidate Ross Perot was in the mix, Trump’s 2020 total is the worst in Utah since Richard Nixon’s first bid in 1968 (Nixon finished with 57% that year). And Trump is finishing about 15 points behind Mitt Romney’s 2012 performance in Utah.

President-elect Joe Biden is at 38% among the votes that have been counted, the best showing for a Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson won Utah in 1964. He is leading in three counties and is close behind Trump in San Juan, even with the counties Barack Obama won in 2008 and Bill Clinton in 1996.

Not a blue wave, but an orange boot

Democrats had dreams of riding a blue wave into the White House and retaking the Senate. The wave washed out.

Smarter people than I will offer explanations for why that was, but it seems to me that Democrats convinced voters they were running against Trump — and that worked. But they didn’t have a cohesive message about why voters should vote for candidates down-ballot.

That left us with hundreds of individual races with individual candidates, and Republicans fared well in those. Take Sen. Susan Collins in Maine, viewed as an endangered Republican, who won reelection by 9 points in a state Trump lost by 10.

Burgess Owens was a flawed candidate

The Owens vs. Ben McAdams race remains close — of course — but if Owens loses, Republicans will have some soul-searching to do.

Owens, it seems, wasn’t the model 4th District candidate from the start. The district has never been won by a hardcore partisan — Rep. Mia Love got branded as an ideologue in her first run, which she lost. She returned as a kinder, gentler Republican two years later and won.

The formula for winning the 4th hinges on keeping your base and winning a chunk of moderate, unaffiliated voters. But Owens declared war on godless socialist Democrats and showed up on every right-wing podcast he could, giving credence to QAnon conspiracy theories.

What’s more, he managed to skate through the Republican primary without real vetting.

Part of this points to poor candidate recruitment. But part of it is the current convention-and-primary system (and hostility to signature-gathering) that is ill-suited for finding nominees who can appeal to moderate voters. Right now, Owens has a small lead but there are more votes to count and I still expect McAdams to win this race.

The West is getting the blues

A long, long time ago I wrote a piece about the Republican dominance in the Intermountain West and whether it would ever change. It looks like it has.

After the 2000 election, Republicans held 81% of the Senate seats and 75% of House seats in the eight mountain west states — Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. Just one of those eight states, New Mexico, went to the Democrat Al Gore. All eight had Republican governors.

This year, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado will all go to Biden and with Mark Kelly’s win in Arizona and John Hickenlooper’s win in Colorado, Democrats will hold nine of the region’s 16 Senate seats.

Democrats now hold three of the eight governor’s seats and, while they are likely to still trail in House seats, they have won 13 of the 29 races that have been decided (with several pending, including Utah’s 4th District).

One could probably write an entire book about why things have changed, and the reasons probably vary state to state, but it seems that as the West grows in population, becomes more urban and more diverse, the politics are slowly shifting, with Utah, Idaho and Wyoming the last real holdouts.

Utah Dems shouldn’t get too comfortable

Down the ticket, three Democratic women are poised to knock off Republican incumbents in the Utah House — Reps. Steve Eliason, Jim Dunnigan and Eric Hutchings. In a couple of other races, the incumbents are holding a slight lead and look like they’ll hold on.

It’s tricky to get a handle on why these incumbents lost. There may have been some backlash over the unpopular tax bill Republicans passed and then had to repeal. Eliason voted against the bill, even though Democrats sent a mailer to voters criticizing him for the legislation.

But it may be as simple as big Democratic turnout flipping districts that are always close. I did a precinct-level analysis of the three districts and it turns out Biden won each of them by larger margins than the three Democratic House candidates, while the three Republican candidates all did better than Trump.

But if they win, McAdams and the three new Democrats — Wendy Davis, Ashlee Matthews and Lynette Wendel — shouldn’t get comfortable.

The Legislature will start the process of redistricting in the spring and even though there will be an independent redistricting commission this time around, it will only give recommendations. The Republican Legislature will still be free to do what it wants, and it’s a good bet they’ll look to carve up all of those Democratic gains.

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