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This Sandy Democrat came within 100 votes of beating a GOP rep last year. Here’s why that won’t happen again

Legislators say they considered incumbent addresses when redistricting, but not to stifle competition.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wendy Davis, a Democrat who narrowly lost a state House seat last year, at her home in Sandy on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. Davis said she's been cut out of her former opponent's district, Republican Rep. Steve Eliason. She's holding a map that shows, in color, the new districts, with the previous districts outlined.

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When vote totals started to arrive last year, it quickly became obvious that the contest between Democrat Wendy Davis and Republican Rep. Steve Eliason would be a nail-biter.

Election night results seemed to put Davis on course to victory. Then, in the days that followed, her lead slowly shrank as ballots continued to trickle in. Eliason eventually overtook her and reclaimed his seat by just 77 votes.

But as of last week, the possibility of a rematch between the two has pretty much evaporated, with voting boundary changes that booted Davis out of Eliason’s district by a couple of blocks. If she were to run in her new Utah House district, she’d have to face off against a fellow Democrat, Rep. Andrew Stoddard.

She doesn’t think that redistricting move was an accident on the part of the Legislature.

“I believe that it was a strategic move and that I was definitely cut out of that district because ... I almost took down a 10-year incumbent that is very well-liked,” she said. “I don’t see any other way to interpret that.”

Utah Rep. Paul Ray, who co-chaired the state’s legislative redistricting committee, said he has “no clue” where Davis lives.

“I did not allow anyone to intentionally be drawn in, or out, of a district,” the Clearfield Republican said.

Davis doesn’t buy it, noting that she also now falls outside the district represented by Sen. Kirk Cullimore, a Republican people had urged her to go up against. With the updated lines, a Senate run would again pit her against another Democrat — Sen. Kathleen Riebe.

“So it’s extremely difficult to think that it wasn’t intentional, right?” the Sandy resident said. “I really think it’s an attempt to neutralize a viable threat.”

In response to questions about the new boundaries, Eliason’s only remark was that he wasn’t a member of the redistricting committee. He referred to the House spokeswoman for further comment.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wendy Davis, a Democrat who narrowly lost a state House seat last year, at her home in Sandy on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. Davis said she's been cut out of her former opponent's district, Republican Rep. Steve Eliason. She's holding a map that shows what she calls a nearly 50-50 split between Republican and Democrat voters in her district during the 2020 election.

State lawmakers did pay attention to incumbent addresses when designing the maps, acknowledged Sen. Scott Sandall, who served with Ray at the helm of the redistricting committee. But he added it wasn’t because they intended to squelch competition.

The Tremonton Republican says his goal was, wherever possible, to keep voters in the districts of legislators they’d recently elected rather than changing their state-level representation in the middle of a term.

But they had to change the boundaries to some degree to reflect population changes, including the explosive growth in southwestern Salt Lake County that caused ripple effects to surrounding districts such as Eliason’s.

Katie Matheson, deputy director at Alliance for a Better Utah, said she was disappointed by the legislative redistricting commission’s focus on incumbent officials. In one public hearing, she notes, the panel even took a proposed school board map and overlaid it with incumbent addresses to make sure sitting officials would retain their districts.

The state’s mapping tool also included an overlay of incumbent addresses for legislators and congressional representatives.

But the point of redistricting should not be continuity, Matheson said, or about politicians at all. And it’s disappointing, she continued, that the final maps protect the seats of incumbents “at the expense of people having robust representation.”

The resulting districts are generally less competitive, she said, as red districts got redder and blue districts got bluer.

An analysis by the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project determined that 61 of the 75 seats in the House clearly favor Republicans, while just nine favor Democrats. Only five can be considered “competitive,” and even if Democrats captured all of those seats, they’d have fewer representatives in the House than they currently do.

“If you believe in a competition of ideas and the marketplace of ideas, they’re reducing that competition,” she said. “They’re making it easier for themselves to push through the ideological agenda of the supermajority.”

Davis said she and Democrats Lynette Wendel and Fatima Dirie each came close to “taking down three white Republican males” in last year’s state House races, but redistricting has created additional hurdles for all of them.

And competition is beneficial no matter the outcome, she argues. After Davis lost to Eliason last year, the two rivals sat down for a friendly conversation, where she emphasized how many of his district residents had voted for her and not him.

“I think that challenges him to be an even better lawmaker, quite frankly,” she said. “When you have that knowledge that half of your voter chose a different candidate.”

Rural representation?

Utah Republicans have asserted they want all four congressional districts to have a healthy mix of rural and urban communities, saying the representatives must have a deep understanding of the land and water resources that nourish the rest of the state.

They’ve cited that goal in explaining why they divided up Salt Lake County and split its left-leaning voters between all of the districts. Creating a district dominated by urban voters, they say, would upset this balance between the interests of the Wasatch Front and the vast communities outside it.

But to Tyrell Aagard, president of the Young Democrats of Utah, these arguments ring hollow when you plot out the addresses of the sitting congressional representatives.

All four of them are clustered together, living within roughly an hour of each other along Interstate 15, Aagard pointed out in a recent tweet.

“I’m so glad we care so deeply about rural representation that we create a map to elect four members of Congress from the Wasatch Front!” he wrote. “I’m sure the rural areas of the state feel loved.”

Aagard said he grew up in Levan, in sparsely populated Juab County, and that communities in these parts of the state are well aware that power is concentrated in Utah’s population centers.

Utah’s Republican leaders, he contends, use rural GOP voters to muffle the voices of Salt Lake County Democrats — and in doing so, dilute the power of these communities.

“You end up with districts where no one person can do a good job at representing both sides because they are different,” he said. “And so in their actual goal of making sure that their party is the only one who can control our seats in congress, they under-serve both urban and rural Utahns.”

Sandall, who helped lead the lawmakers’ redistricting effort, says the location of a representative’s home isn’t necessarily related to the election lines, since members of Congress aren’t required to live inside their district. In fact, sitting Rep. Blake Moore resides outside the district he represents.

Still, Sandall said, these representatives have to pay attention to rural Utah. They have to make campaign stops and hold town halls in these rural communities and build relationships with local leaders in these areas.

The goal is to make sure the entire congressional delegation understands water, land and mineral issues that are integral to the entire state, he said.

“I maintain and believe that we are better served as one Utah,” he said.

Ray noted that federally managed public lands account for nearly two-thirds of Utah’s acreage and said the congressional delegation needs to work as a team when it comes to these spaces.

“That’s a major fight back in D.C.,” he said. “You want to make sure that all four of your congressional leaders have a stake in that fight.”

However, to Matheson of Alliance for a Better Utah, redistricting is supposed to be about community representation, not about building a congressional delegation united around a particular policy goal.

“That’s manipulating the process to get what you want out of it instead of reflecting the people accurately,” Matheson said.

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