Status quo or new blood? Four candidates join race to lead Utah’s Democrats for the next 2 years.

Current chair Jeff Merchant is seeking another term. Challengers say Utah’s minority party needs a new course

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant speaks at a party gathering at Eisenhower Jr. High in this Feb. 23, 2019, file photo. Merchant, who wasn't chair at the time of the photo, is not seeking a second term in the post.

The Utah Democratic Party is coming off what many would describe as a disappointing election cycle. They lost the lone seat they held in Congress, picked up only a single seat in the Utah Legislature and lost a seat on the Salt Lake County Council after high hopes of picking up two.

Their decadeslong streak of failing to win a statewide race continued. And redistricting, which is usually not kind to Utah’s minority party, is just around the corner.

Current party chair Jeff Merchant is seeking a second two-year term. He handily ousted Daisy Thomas as party leader in 2019, promising to retire thousands of dollars of debt the party had racked up under previous administrations.

“I was elected to clean up what amounted to a big mess,” says Merchant bluntly. “The party was in six-figure debt. We had no staff and no real plan for winning elections.”

Merchant was able to deliver on a couple of those promises. The debt is gone and the party has added staff.

“We’re moving in the right direction, but the job is not finished yet,” he adds.

Merchant will have to fend off at least three challengers if he wants the opportunity to continue as chair. Those rivals include a current county party chairman, a longtime party activist and a two-time candidate who failed to win the party nomination.

One of those rivals is laying out an eye-popping goal if he successfully supplants Merchant as the head of the party.

“My goal is to have Democrats win the Utah House majority by 2030,” says Chris Stout without a hint of doubt in his voice.

Stout was the Democratic nominee for Utah State Treasurer in 2012. He got just over 28% of the vote in that race.

Meeting Stout’s goal would be a big swing indeed. Democrats hold 17 out of 75 seats in the Utah House right now. The state’s minority party needs a net gain of at least 21 seats over the next five election cycles to meet that goal. That’s an incredibly tall order, especially when you consider that the most seats they’ve held in the House in recent memory was 26 in 1992.

“We need to flip three seats in next year’s election in order to put this plan in action,” says Stout. “If we can’t, we’ll never be able to get the majority in the House.”

Current Utah County Democratic Chair Daniel Hicken believes there’s a lot of opportunity in the coming years for Utah’s Democrats. He points to changing demographics, driven primarily by in-migration from other states, that could help lead the state’s Democrats out of the political wilderness.

While you might not put “Democratic successes” and “Utah County” in the same sentence, Hicken believes they’re not mutually exclusive terms, so long as your definition of success is flexible.

“Take a look at the Congressional District 4 race. That should have been a slam dunk for Burgess Owens. But our efforts to get out the vote kept that race within 2,200 votes,” he says. “We reached out to younger voters and those new residents to the state to get them engaged and it almost paid off.”

Another candidate in the race, Kevin Probasco, did not respond to requests for comment. Probasco unsuccessfully competed for the Utah Democratic Party nomination in the 1st Congressional District in 2018. He also vied for the party’s nod in the attorney general’s contest in 2020 but also lost.

This year is a redistricting year when the Republican-controlled Legislature redraws political boundaries for the state. That’s traditionally bad news for the state’s minority party. Democrats lost five seats in the Utah House following the 2001 redistricting cycle. By the end of that decade, they had dropped another three. The 2011 redistricting cost the party another two seats.

Utah voters approved a ballot measure in 2018 establishing an independent redistricting commission, but the Legislature demoted the group to an advisory role with no real teeth, which puts the GOP majority on the Hill firmly in control. That political reality has not escaped Merchant or his challengers.

“We have a Legislature with a level of hubris that’s monumental and historic,” said Merchant. “They’re going to do whatever they want. If they decide to be unfair to us and adopt the same kind of gerrymandering we saw in 2001 or 2011, next year could be about trying to minimize our losses instead of looking for gains.”

This year’s redistricting process will be delayed significantly, which will complicate matters even further. We probably won’t know what the new districts look like until October or November.

Stout said no matter when those new lines are drawn, the party has to be ready to start their campaigning efforts.

“We have to start building an army of volunteers and donors. We’ve got to be ready to send people into those new districts and start getting our message out to voters. We can win on issues if we make the effort to talk to voters,” he said.

Hicken said the key to victory is using data to target Democrats and Utahns who may lean toward the party, then get them to vote.

“I think with proper analytics and data, we can identify those districts we could flip. We’re going to be able to make some inroads,” he said.

There may be more candidates who join the race before the filing period closes on Saturday at 10 a.m. Delegates will elect their leader for the next two years at the state convention in June.

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