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Robert Gehrke: Where do Utah Democrats go from here?

The 2020 election was a disappointment and redistricting won’t help.

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

Studying Greek mythology back in high school, we probably all learned the story of Sisyphus, who was sentenced by the gods to roll a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll all the way back down each time he neared the top.

And one night, Sisyphus was sitting in a bar, just before closing time, telling this story of futility and disappointment and the guy next to him says, “You think that’s bad? I’m a Utah Democrat.”

It’s how it is and how it has been for Democrats in the state — each time it looks like they’re making meaningful inroads, they end up watching the boulder go crashing down the mountain.

The 2020 election proved to be much the same. With a marginally unpopular Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, there was reason for hope and, indeed, with the early votes counted, it looked like they might be making progress, with U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams leading, as was Salt Lake County Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani, and a few state House candidates.

But we know how it played out — McAdams and Ghorbani lost and Democrats netted just one House victory.

A large part of the explanation frankly boils down to math. In an overwhelmingly Republican state, which Utah remains, high turnout across-the-board is almost impossible to overcome.

In the 4th District, for example, 90,000 more voters cast ballots in 2020 than they did in 2018 or 2016 and a huge portion of those were in Republican-leaning Utah County. McAdams actually did slightly better, percentage-wise, in Utah County last month than he did two years ago, but the volume of votes that rolled in for Republican Burgess Owens overwhelmed his advantage in Salt Lake County.

Ghorbani’s race is perhaps an even more striking example of partisan turnout dictating results. Her opponent, Laurie Stringham, was a first-time candidate who spent just over $10,000 on her campaign and wasn’t included in the voter guide.

Voters, Ghorbani told me, were all talking about the same issues — access to health care, mental health care and fostering the kind of jobs that can help build a community — and those were the issues central to her campaign. And still she lost.

“As a red state Democrat, it means screaming into the void,” Ghorbani told me. “I’m talking about the issues I hear over and over again as I meet [voters] face-to-face, and then they go vote Republican. It’s a hard issue of cognitive dissonance.”

Compounding those defeats, in the spring, Democrats will be staring down the barrel of redistricting.

On the congressional front, after McAdams’ loss, Republicans will be able to try to make their four U.S. House districts bulletproof. As large as the Republican advantages are in the current 2nd District and 4th District — 13% and 16% respectively — they could have been larger if they hadn’t put even more Republicans in the 1st and 3rd districts.

And in the state Legislature, redistricting routinely wipes away the gains the minority party has spent a decade building. After the 1991 redistricting, Democrats lost four legislative seats (combined in the state House and Senate). Ten years later, they lost seven, and after the 2011 redrawing of boundaries, they surrendered four.

This time around, Utah will have its first independent redistricting commission, but don’t count on it altering the outcome. Even when voters approved it in 2018, it was largely a paper tiger and after the Legislature revised the process it is essentially an advisory panel recommending maps — which the Legislature can ignore.

Long story short: A bad political map will likely get worse for Democrats.

So where does Utah’s minority party look for hope?

Perhaps start with a positive from the last election. Joe Biden got 232,000 more votes than any Democratic presidential candidate has before and 180,000 more than any Democrat running statewide. The ceiling is higher than ever before.

Building on that, it seems to me, has to come from the middle, and that means doubling down on the McAdams model.

“We know what works,” McAdams told me Tuesday. “Democrats win in Utah by appealing to independents and moderate Republicans. We know the messaging that works: We care about expanding access to health care and we also support free enterprise and private markets. Let’s talk about our shared values.”

Reading that, I know, sends the Bernie Sanders wing of the party through the roof. The progressive Democrats contend firing up young voters — giving them someone and something they can believe in — is the best path to victory.

But there aren’t really any examples of that working, of a progressive winning in a GOP-leaning area, anywhere in the state. It’s a basic math problem. There are simply not enough left-leaning voters to overcome the Republican advantage, especially if you lose moderates in the bargain.

Beyond that, Ghorbani told me, Democrats need to do the hard work of organizing, building coalitions and listening. And they need to be better about communicating the message. For proof, she points to the 2018 ballot initiatives — expanding Medicaid, legalizing medical marijuana and creating the redistricting commission — all items Democrats supported and Republicans resisted and all of which voters supported statewide.

“I think when we take our issues to the ballot, we see this is a much more moderate state than is reflected generally,” she said.

None of that guarantees wins. And frankly, many more losses are likely in store. But it begins to build a foundation that, as the state becomes more diverse — ethnically, politically and religiously — can slowly start to shift the political makeup years and years down the road.

It’ll take time and patience, but by now Utah Democrats should be used to rolling that boulder up the hill.

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