Democratic Utah Rep. Ben McAdams ran for reelection this year as a political centrist, with ads that featured endorsements by Republicans plus calls for the parties to work together. That fell short against a right-wing Trump warrior, Burgess Owens.
Still, McAdams doesn’t regret those tactics — and even says the future of Democrats both in Utah and the nation likely depends on moving away from the left to the center. He says the future of the nation and fixing a dysfunctional Congress may depend on it, too.
“The first and most important thing is to be authentic to who you are, and I am a centrist,” says McAdams, whose campaign spent $5.3 million on his unsuccessful run. “I would also say that’s a recipe for success politically.”
While his election defeat changed his career trajectory, McAdams isn’t ruling out staying in the political arena.
His personal plans are in flux and, he says, “I’m looking at all options.”
McAdams, a lawyer, says that includes possibly returning to private work, and he is looking at possibly joining the new Biden administration if a good opportunity is offered. He is also considering another run for office in the future.
“Whether it’s in two years or 20 years, I am not ruling out the option of returning to public office,” he says. “Whatever I do, I want to be able to contribute to our state and our community in a positive way.”
He explains that while he lost, he still outperformed President-elect Joe Biden and other Democrats in Utah whose campaigns were less centrist.
“In the latest tally I saw, I was No. 2 nationally in outperforming the national ticket,” he says, adding such party data figured that Biden lost by about 19 points in the 4th Congressional District but McAdams lost by 1 point.
Running more to the center “is where the future of the Democratic Party lies — bridging our divides and bringing us together,” McAdams says. He sees it as the only way for Democrats nationally to make major gains in a country that is roughly half Republican and half Democratic.
He acknowledges that Democrats are deeply divided about such a strategy.
“There’s a bit of a schizophrenia within the Democratic Party today,” he says, “with many people who believe that we need to move further to the left and be equally divisive on the left to match the divisiveness on the right.”
McAdams says that would win races only in Democratic areas.
“When you think along those lines in districts like mine,” he says, “it’s going to favor the Republican.”
While he says some people in both parties want to continue partisan fights, he believes most voters sent “a very clear message that Americans want us to end the divisiveness and the fighting” — and the party that eventually leads out on that will be the most successful.
“There are a lot of people who are ready to come together to end the divisiveness,” McAdams says. “They are tired, exhausted by the chaos and controversy, and are ready to work together to solve our challenges.”
Even more important than helping to win elections, McAdams says, a move to the center may help heal the country and dysfunction in Washington.
“Congress is incredibly broken,” he says. “Why? I think people don’t seem to talk to each other anymore.”
He says it’s important to elect people willing to work across the aisle, and that could be advanced by electing more candidates running from the center instead of the extremes.
He says that when he was a Democratic state senator in the heavily Republican Utah Legislature, he had to learn to work with the other party to accomplish anything. “I was able to do that because I built strong relationships and was able to listen to feedback from other people and usually was able to adapt my ideas or my proposals in a way that could garner broader support,” he says.
But McAdams says he finds that few members of Congress now even speak to members of the opposing party at all, let alone try to forge alliances.
Meanwhile, McAdams worries that the redrawing of political boundaries next year after the once-every-decade census may hurt the chances of Democrats or centrists even more, based on what he saw happen in the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature a decade ago. He says creating noncompetitive districts can favor extremists who need not worry about the other party.
McAdams was a state senator during the last redistricting and says he and a bipartisan group were discussing what they thought was a fair proposal for congressional districts submitted by a citizen. Then, a day before a special session to adopt new districts, a new plan emerged.
“I said to the Republican sitting next to me, ‘Where did that come from?’ He said, ‘Oh, the NRCC [National Republican Congressional Committee] sent that over last night. That’s the one we’re going to adopt’” as the one most likely to elect conservatives in all four of Utah’s congressional districts.
“We had spent over $1 million traveling the state, soliciting input on boundaries … and then just out of the blue, without any public input, this new map pops up. And lo and behold, the map that they adopted the very next day,” McAdams says.
Since then, Utah voters passed an initiative (repealed and replaced this year by the Legislature) to create an independent commission to recommend new boundaries, but the Legislature may choose to ignore them.
“We should respect the independent commission that was created by the voters and allow it to do its job, to draw boundaries that reflect communities of interest, not political interests,” McAdams says. “I hope that’s what happens.”