Ever since Ben McAdams won his Salt Lake County mayoral race in 2012, the political gossip mill has been obsessed with where he would go next. He is, after all, the highest-profile Democrat in the state, and he has the best shot — at least since Rep. Jim Matheson retired — to contend for a statewide seat.
The chatter was ratcheted up over the weekend when McAdams acknowledged that he’s considering a run against Republican Rep. Mia Love next November. If he’s serious, McAdams will have to make a decision within the next few weeks.
The 4th Congressional seat is winnable, though it comes with some downside. Here’s reasons why he should consider it:
Go where the votes are: As McAdams is well aware, about five out of every six 4th District voters live in Salt Lake County, where McAdams won re-election in 2016 with nearly 60 percent of the vote. That figure overstates his strength somewhat. Thanks to games the Legislature plays, the district is largely the southwestern suburbs and doesn’t include the liberal parts of Salt Lake City.
But McAdams ran strong in 2016, winning in the GOP stronghold of West Jordan and performing well in Taylorsville and South Jordan. And, because it’s the population center of the district, a relatively small win in Salt Lake County forces Love to run up a big victory in Utah, Sanpete and Juab counties to close the gap.
So, say McAdams wins Salt Lake County 53-47, which is doable (Rep. Jim Matheson beat Love by more than seven points in Salt Lake County in 2012), then Love has to win 68-32 in the rest of the district, and that’s harder to pull off.
It’s a freebie: McAdams isn’t up for re-election as county mayor until 2020, meaning the 2018 race won’t boot him from public office. If he wins, then he’s off to Washington. If he loses, he regroups, runs the county for two more years, and runs for reelection, if he wants.
The Trump factor: Remember a year ago, when Love walloped Democrat Doug Owens in their anticipated rematch of their close 2014 race? Love nationalized the race, tying Owens to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. It worked.
This time, however, it’s Love who has to run with President Donald Trump as the face of the Republican Party, and Trump’s not exactly Mr. Popularity in Utah — his approval rating has sagged under 50 percent for most of the year.
On top of that, historically, the party in power loses seats in the mid-term election. Nationally, Democrats are running nearly eight points ahead of Republicans in a generic congressional ballot — a simple, “Which party would you vote for?” question. By comparison, heading into the 2016 election, the parties were tied.
Love could find herself in the same position Owens and, before him, Matheson, found himself, having to try to avoid the liability of the party’s president. And, so far, there’s not much in her record to show she can do that.
The potential open seat: There’s one more piece that could fall into place for McAdams. Suppose Sen. Orrin Hatch actually decides to retire to a museum and Mitt Romney actually decides he really likes his family and doesn’t want to run for Senate. That creates an open seat that could look pretty attractive to Love. If she jumps, McAdams would suddenly find himself running for an open seat and would be a huge favorite to win.
All that said, the race may seem like a no brainer, but there are some cons he may want to consider:
The big nasty: Conventional wisdom, assuming it still applies in politics, is you have to go negative — candidates call it “drawing distinctions” — to beat an incumbent. We saw Love and Matheson slug it out in 2012, with the help from a flood of attack ads from outside the state.
A McAdams-Love fight would probably be as bad, if not worse. Love already is sending out campaign mail saying that McAdams is Nancy Pelosi’s dream candidate. It’s predictable and tiresome. But it’s the way it goes.
McAdams’ recent attempt at boxing notwithstanding, he’s not known for being a brawler. While Love has been in the ring a few times now. Plus, McAdams would likely be cautious. It can be tricky for a white male candidate to lob attacks on an African American female candidate.
Assume he can do it, at what cost? He would jeopardize the squeaky-clean bipartisan image he has spent years honing. And, worst case, if he loses, he could damage The Ben Brand to the point he’s vulnerable to a challenge for mayor in 2020 from, say, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder-Newton.
It would also weaken the chances of my favorite political rumor — that McAdams could be an intriguing, bipartisan running mate for Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox’s gubernatorial bid in 2020. It’s harder to pull off if McAdams is re-branded as a partisan Democrat.
Congress sucks: The big downside for either candidate running in 2018 has to be watching your children shield their embarrassment when they tell their friends their mommy or daddy is a member of Congress. It’s a terrible place.
The House also sucks in that, in Utah, at least, it saps the political future from up-and-comers. Can you name the last Utah House member who went on to win a race for a higher office?
I’ll save you from having to Google it. It was Orice Abram Murdock Jr., who served in the House and went on to win a Senate seat in 1941. Until that time, Murdock’s most notable achievement was runner-up to Rep. Frederick C. Loofbourow as the goofiest name of any member of Utah’s congressional delegation.
If McAdams has aspirations to win a statewide office, a tub of green Jell-O would provide a better springboard.
Love and Money: Getting in late, and it is relatively late to jump into a congressional race, means McAdams starts in a fundraising hole. Love has at least $350,000 in the bank and probably more once she files her upcoming report. Some of that may be a liability — money from the National Rifle Association or banks, for example — but it all spends the same.
National parties will help, but the Democrats are trying desperately to retake the House and will be spread thin, needing to gain 24 seats, so their contribution may not be what one might expect in an otherwise competitive race.
Because any money McAdams has raised for county campaigns can’t simply transfer over to a federal race, that means he would spend the first few weeks dancing for cash to support his bid.
So much orange: Campaign lawn signs and billboards and t-shirts are supposed to be red, white or blue. You’re running for United States Congress, not student body office a Syracuse University. But Love and McAdams both have traditionally gone with orange as their trademark color. Voters don’t need that much orange in their lives.