For generations, Davina Smith’s family has called Monument Valley and its surrounding area home. The small Diné community on the Utah-Arizona border, marked by photogenic sandstone towers, is situated in the largest geographical House district in the Beehive State — District 69.
”A lot of our elderly would always state that they wanted our young Native children to go get an education, to learn as much, gain as much experience, and come back and help our communities,” Smith said. “When the opportunity came up of if I wanted to run, I felt that was the moment.”
So, in 2022, Smith decided that she’d use her life and professional experiences — like struggling to find housing, helping vulnerable populations access health care and advocating to protect open lands — to run to represent her home district in the Legislature, challenging a Republican who’d won unopposed during the previous election cycle.
But 29 other Republican lawmakers were uncontested last year. Now an outside group is wading into conservative-leaning Utah to recruit Democrats to follow Smith’s lead and jump into races where Republican names were the only ones on the ballot.
Contesting every race
Contest Every Race is a project by Movement Labs, an incubator for progressive organizing. It launched a grant program in 2021 to add more Democrats to ballots across the country, with an early focus in purple and deep red states, and ambitious plans to help the party contest every electoral competition in the U.S. by 2028.
This fall, the nonprofit partnered with the Utah Democratic Party to ping phones in all 29 counties, urging people to run in legislative and other down-ballot races. According to its website, issues like the health of democracy, abortion access, racial justice and climate change are at stake in stake in each of these contests.
“Hi [insert name], we’re looking for Dems in [insert municipality] to run for local office,” texts read. “Want info on how to run?”
Recipients who reply “yes” can sign up for a coaching call to get answers to any questions they might have, said Daniel Jubelirer, the chief of staff for Contest Every Race. That’s followed by what Jubelirer described as a “drip of information,” including the open races in their area and what’s involved in running for public office, “to really begin the discernment process about if that is something that they want to do.”
In addition to uncontested legislative races, Democrats have their eye on smaller races throughout the state with aims to build a pipeline of future candidates for larger posts.
“It’s not likely that an everyday working mom or young person that recently turned 18 is going to file for statewide office out of a text, but they might run for their local school board or their local city council,” Jubelirer said. “And we’ve seen that happen, and then those people are developing their leadership skills, getting governing experience, policy experience, and this is really our way of building the bench of potential folks who could run for statewide office.”
To recruit candidates who are new to politics, Jubelirer added, Democrats need to have local infrastructure in place to support them. So the initiative is also offering $2,000 in grants annually to county parties that are willing to complete monthly goals, like hosting outreach events and tabling at community celebrations.
All of Utah’s 29 counties have a Democratic party, according to the state party’s website. But at least two of the most rural counties don’t have any leadership listed. Many of Utah’s county Democratic parties have not reported financial contributions to the state in over a decade.
Jubelirer said county parties have long been under-invested in by state parties and the Democratic National Committee. While he acknowledged that $2,000 is a small contribution when looked at through the lens of finances in national races, Jubelirer said some parties have been able to use it to rent office space or purchase phones for low-income volunteers.
‘Small d democratic process
A lack of Democratic candidates in state legislative races extends beyond Utah’s most remote counties. Republicans without opponents won numerous seats along the Wasatch Front and up and down the Interstate 15 corridor in 2022.
Approximately one-third of state legislative seats up for election last year were won by Republicans without opponents. An additional 13% of winning lawmakers were Republicans who only faced third-party challengers, meaning Democrats didn’t have a candidate in nearly half of state legislative races.
Two Democrats in blue Salt Lake County won House races uncontested last year.
A different set of Senate seats will be up for reelection in 2024 for the first time since new boundaries were drawn. Approximately one-third of Senate seats not up for election in 2022 were held by Republicans who were previously uncontested, and nearly 60% of their races didn’t include Democrats.
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The GOP holds a supermajority in the Legislature by 12 seats in the House and four seats in the Senate. The number of uncontested seats won by Republicans — in both bodies — in 2022 exceeded those numbers.
In recent years, the weight of the Republican supermajority has been used to grab power from the executive branch and override vetoes, like Gov. Spencer Cox’s rejection of a bill that would ban transgender students from playing on sports teams that align with their gender identity.
“It’s not really a ‘small d’ democratic process if people only have one option to vote for,” said Thom DeSirant, the executive director of the Utah Democratic Party. “You get your ballot and you just have one option — you can’t really exercise your right to vote unless you choose to just leave the option blank, which is not something we want people to do.”
“I think that just having these races contested also helps increase turnout in general,” he added. “People just see one option on the ballot, they feel like there’s no reason to even vote.”
Brigham Young University political science professor Adam Brown, who has compiled an in-depth guide to the Utah Legislature, agrees that ideally, both parties would contest every race — from Republicans running in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood to Democrats competing in St. George.
But he isn’t sure that it would result in more Democrats getting elected, or whether it would even push Republicans fighting for reelection closer to the political center. The results of Contest Every Race’s efforts in Utah will likely vary district-by-district, Brown said, and would depend on how competitive the race is and how “much the incumbent believes that a loss is possible.”
“Every officeholder thinks to some extent about staying in office. In most of the state, there is so little competition that this concern only revolves around renomination,” Brown wrote in an email.
“An opponent in the general election with a real chance of winning would obviously force incumbents to more carefully balance their renomination constituency against their general election [constituency] — ... the issue that Republican and Democratic legislators in purplish places like Taylorsville, West Valley, and Sandy confront.”
In other states where Contest Every Race has recruited Democratic candidates, Jubelirer said about 38% of the approximately 5,500 political newcomers won their races. Another perk of recruiting more candidates to the ballot for Democrats, Jubelirer noted, is that it would likely increase the number of votes going toward Democratic congressional and presidential candidates.
“For a long time, the state Democratic Party has been really focused on a few key seats in the Wasatch Front, almost entirely in Salt Lake County, and I believe that has been a mistake,” DeSirant said, continuing, “What I’d like to see out of this is people from around the state saying, ‘Yeah, there are good candidates on the ballot where I’m at,’ and I want people to feel proud of what the Democratic Party is doing.”
Although Smith lost her race against Republican Rep. Phil Lyman, who has served in the Legislature since 2019, he secured fewer votes when she challenged him in 2022. Lyman’s district boundaries changed between 2020 and 2022 — but despite 4,000 more people casting a vote in his race last year, he lost more than 3,000 votes, shrinking from 14,518 to 11,170, according to state election records.
Other Democrats have begun announcing their candidacy in previously uncontested races, like Sara Cimmers in House District 45, which covers Sandy and South Jordan.
“We really have to roll up our sleeves and be more involved in our community,” Smith said. While campaigning, the candidate said she met people in all six counties in District 69 who were unaware of Democrats in their part of the state.
“I mean, they would hear of someone that was mostly up in the Salt Lake area, so that made me realize, ‘wow, well then I need to work harder so people know that I am from a rural community and I’m planning to stay here,’” Smith added.
And although Lyman has launched a gubernatorial campaign, Smith will be doing that again in 2024 — fighting an uphill battle in an attempt to win Democrats another seat on Capitol Hill.
“I’m still in this,” she said, ”and I’m going to continue to go.”
Editor’s note • The filing deadline for candidates looking to run in Utah’s 2024 election is 5 p.m. Jan. 8, 2024