With months to go before the November election, winners are already determined in 11 of Utah’s 90 legislative races this year. And it’s all but over in another four contests.
Nine Republican and two Democratic incumbents are unopposed and another four GOP members are challenged only by candidates from minor parties that haven’t won a state election here in decades.
Some say that coronavirus worries are partly to blame for the lack of competition. Others point to gerrymandering. Or it could be that the big financial and political advantages that incumbents enjoy scared off would-be challengers.
“My guess is that running for office is a pretty low priority when you’re wondering if you or your family is going to be sick, or if you run a small business and wonder if it’s going to survive,” said Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, one of the lucky unopposed incumbents. “The world changed, and I think that’s the biggest factor.”
Hemmert in December dropped out of a congressional race where he had hoped to challenge Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams, but found that it was too tough to juggle such a major campaign while tending to the dry cleaning chain he co-owns.
“In hindsight, that seems very prescient,” Hemmert said. “If I hadn’t done it then, I certainly would be doing it right now because the priority [in a tough economy] is the business.”
House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, is another incumbent who drew no challengers. He agrees that the COVID-19 outbreak could be a factor.
“I think the coronavirus has a lot of people worried, not knowing what is going on. I think that may have been on some people’s minds more than running for office,” Gibson said.
Seeming to argue against the theory that the coronavirus outbreak caused a dearth of challengers, is that four years ago 15 of 90 legislative races were unopposed and another five incumbents faced only token challenges from minor-party candidates. But then again in 2012, only four of 90 races were unopposed.
Other Republicans who are now running unopposed include: Reps. Brady Brammer (Highland), Scott Chew (Jensen), Jon Hawkins (Pleasant Grove), Jefferson Moss (Saratoga Springs), Travis Seegmiller (St. George) and Christine Watkins (Price). Unopposed GOP senators include Gregg Buxton (Roy) and David Hinkins (Orangeville).
The two unopposed Democrats are Reps. Jen Dailey-Provost and Angela Romero, both of Salt Lake City.
Michael Lyons, a political science professor at Utah State University, says he’s not surprised at the number of unopposed races, and says it’s fairly typical not just here but nationwide. He adds that a usual top suspect is gerrymandering, a manipulation of political boundaries to favor the party in power and current officeholders.
“Incumbents — here and everywhere — really don’t want to break a sweat for reelection if they don’t have to,” he said. And if a district is overwhelmingly Republican, for example, it discourages Democrats from even filing.
Evidence of gerrymandering is when a party wins more seats than its registration numbers would predict. In Utah, Republicans have a 3-1 edge in party registration, but a 5-1 edge in legislative seats.
Other signs of gerrymandering include that besides the 11 unopposed races and the four where Republicans face only minor-party challengers, another four have just Republican candidates. In eight others, the winner of GOP primaries will face only third-party opposition.
In short, it is already a safe bet which party will win in 27 of the 90 legislative races this year — essentially a third of all contests.
If gerrymandering is happening, why would two Democrats be unopposed in safe seats this year?
“It could be because of a technique called ‘packing,’” Lyons said.
Through it, redistricting architects pack as many Democrats as possible into a small number of districts so they don't dilute the Republican vote elsewhere. “It leads to ‘wasted’ Democratic votes,” Lyons said. It gives up a few Democratic districts but makes it easier for Republicans to win elsewhere.
Lyons said it is difficult to prove gerrymandering in Utah because its relatively few Democrats are mostly concentrated in Salt Lake County and Park City. “So you could just draw rectangular shaped districts around them, and they are districts that are packed — and no one could really call that gerrymandering.”
Two legislative seats often cited as examples of legislative gerrymandering are Senate District 12 and House District 54.
In Senate 12, the Democratic candidate in the last election won in Salt Lake County but then lost because the district runs over the Oquirrh Mountains into Tooele County, where Republican voters backed Republican incumbent Sen. Daniel Thatcher. In House 54, a Democratic candidate overwhelming won in Summit County but then was swamped by Republican votes in neighboring Wasatch County, reelecting Rep. Tim Quinn.
Utah voters two years ago passed Proposition 4 to create an independent redistricting commission aimed at ending gerrymandering. But this year, the Legislature passed compromise legislation that allows the Legislature to essentially ignore commission recommendations without explanation if it chooses.
Lyons says he doubts those efforts will bring much change in Utah, again because most Utah Democrats are packed geographically by themselves.
Hemmert is one that scoffs at the idea that gerrymandering helped lead to unopposed races. “That’s B.S.,” he said.
Gibson, too, is skeptical. Republicans have such strong majorities statewide that he doubts gerrymandering plays much, if any, role. “My seat has been Republican for a very, very long time. There’s no way I could have gerrymandered such a Republican seat.”
But Dailey-Provost, one of the two Democrats unchallenged for reelection, said gerrymandering is a possibility that helped create some unopposed candidates — but probably not in her area.
“I definitely represent a district that has a pretty left-leaning voting bloc, but I don’t know that’s necessarily because of gerrymandering,” she said. “I think that’s just part and parcel to the neighborhood we live in. It’s an urban community. There are a lot of transplants. There are a lot of academic leaning folks.”
All the candidates and Lyons also say a key reason for unopposed races is that incumbents face big advantages in raising money and in name recognition.
“It’s really hard to beat an incumbent,” Lyons said. “Donors like to give to winners,” he adds, noting they already have power, have proven themselves to be able politicians — and their ability to attract money makes them more likely to win.