With nearly 3 years until 2020 election, deep-red Utah gets its first visit from a presidential candidate — a little-known Democrat

In this photo taken Dec. 3, 2015, Sen. John Delaney, D-Md. is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington. Delaney says he's running for president, instead of governor or re-election in 2018. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Maryland Congressman John Delaney isn’t one to leave much to chance.

That’s why the Democrat declared his candidacy for the 2020 presidential race just six months after President Donald Trump took office and why he’s already done “100 events on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire” — both in an effort to build his name recognition early on.

That’s likely also part of the reason Delaney came this week to visit Utah, a red state he probably won’t win, with more than two years left before the election. But if he loses the Beehive State in 2020, it won’t be because he wasn’t here first.

“I think our chances are good everywhere,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday morning when asked about his prospects in Utah. “I think this race is wide open.”

During his visit, Delaney spoke at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics about his quest to end “hyperpartisanship” — a goal he listed as one of the central tenets of his campaign.

“We have to begin to bring together this terribly fractured nation,” he said. “Not only is it tearing us apart in terms of our civility, but it’s also really prevented us from doing anything.”

If elected, Delaney said he would work to repair those cracks: pledging to work exclusively on bipartisan efforts for his first 100 days in office and to lead the charge on ending gerrymandering, the process of drawing political district boundaries to give one party an unfair edge in elections.

Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the Hinckley Institute, thinks Delaney’s nonpartisan message may resonate with Utah voters.

“Utah is a conservative state, but Utahns also like to think of ourselves as pragmatists and putting policy and getting issues resolved above party or above partisanship,” she said. “So certainly his goals of working through issues and working in a bipartisan way are things that Utahns will be interested to hear.”

Cotti said she thinks it may make a difference for even Democratic candidates to visit a consistently conservative state like Utah.

“In 2015, it was a big deal that we were having the candidates or high-profile individuals within campaigns come to Utah because we are seen as such a reliable [Republican] state,” she said. “It is a big deal to Utahns to be able to hear more directly from these campaigns and the candidates.”

Delaney was elected to serve Maryland’s 6th District in 2012. Born into a blue-collar family in New Jersey, he grew up to attend Columbia University with the help of a scholarship from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and went on to Georgetown University Law Center.

The congressman also has ties to Utah. His wife, April, grew up in Idaho and has family in the Beehive State.

“We’ve got a lot of roots out here,” Delaney said. “We feel very comfortable out here.”

In addition to making time for family during his visit, the presidential hopeful also planned to attend a fundraiser for Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who recently launched a bid for Utah’s 4th Congressional District.

“I’ve really been impressed with [McAdams],” Delaney said, noting that the two first met through their shared interest in social innovation and impact bonds. “I think we need people like him in Congress.”

McAdams had a similarly positive assessment of the presidential hopeful.

“Congressman Delaney has been a leader in supporting innovation by local government to get private capital flowing to communities that need it most,” he said in a written comment. “Rep. Delaney reaches across the aisle to bring together government, business, and nonprofits to make communities stronger and more prosperous.”

Though Delaney has been pegged as a moderate at a time when the Democratic base seems to be moving further to the left, he rejects such a classification.

“People have a hard time labeling me,” he said, noting both his work on a “progressive” carbon tax bill in Congress and his belief in the value of the free market. “Some of the things they hear me talking about are on the total progressive or liberal end of the spectrum, and in other ways I’m kind of a solutions-oriented moderate who wants to get things done.”

The 2020 election may seem far away, but Delaney said his party is already energized for change — possibly a reaction against Trump’s policies and leadership.

“The Democratic Party is going through a major case of kind of self evaluation,” he said. “So having a conversation about 2020, they’re actually very excited to do it because I think they know the midterm elections are going to be a bit of a referendum on Trump. But the 2020 election is going to be, ‘what do we stand for as a party?’”

And even in Utah, Cotti said she thinks voters are eager for more — no matter how early it is in the game.

“The new normal is politics all the time,” she said. “We’re seeing more engagement and more citizens being aware of politics, and so we anticipate that people are still hungry to learn about these issues.”