The Republicans who controlled the Utah Legislature in 2011 did their level best to draw four congressional districts that would create safe seats for their fellow pachyderms in the elections to come.
They didn’t do what fairness and respect for communities of interest would have dictated — making the bulk of Salt Lake County one district in the middle and then creating three others to encompass the rest of the state.
Instead, like Caesar in Gaul, they divided all of Salt Lake County into three parts. Each sliver was lumped in with much more conservative electorates stretching from the Avenues to St. George, from South Salt Lake to Orem and from Holladay to Blanding. The remaining 1st District, stretching across the northern part of the state, made more sense.
In the elections of 2014 and 2016, it worked. All four congressional districts sent Republicans to Washington. By huge margins in three of the districts and by a smaller one in the 4th, which took in the burbs south of Salt Lake City and lumped them with the ultra-red Utah County.
This year, by the smallest of margins, the district flipped blue. Democrat Ben McAdams unseated two-term Republican Rep. Mia Love.
So, for at least the next two years, the Utah delegation to the House of Representatives will somewhat resemble the Utah electorate. And the state’s most populous county will have a representative who lives there.
Which is kind of what we’d have if the districts were drawn the way they should have been all along.
Somewhat. Kind of. For at least the next two years.
In theory, the idea that every member of Congress should always be looking over his or her shoulder, never totally secure that they have a lifetime appointment, is attractive.
In practice, razor-edge districts like Utah’s 4th may become annoying.
When the alignment is so tight, and a district always up for grabs, the inflow of money will always be overwhelming, the ads will always be the nastiest, the permanent campaign that much more permanent. Safe seats start to look good, not just to incumbents but to voters.
Whether Love comes back in 2020 for another rematch or not, McAdams is going to have to tread carefully to retain the few Democrats, the many independents and the necessary fraction of Republicans he will need to hold on. The status of the presidency — up to and including the possibility that the nation will be in the midst of an impeachment or other constitutional crisis — will matter.
Already, McAdams has laid down the silliest of markers, pledging to vote for anyone not named Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House. In his and other swing districts around the nation, where Republicans and Republican-supporting interest groups equated the San Francisco liberal with the devil incarnate, it was perhaps a reasonable, if sexist, calculation. And a sign of political weakness.
If McAdams can’t afford to stand with his party’s most successful sitting leader for fear of alienating too much of his narrow margin of victory, it is reasonable to wonder if the gerrymandering of his district to weaken Democratic power was still effective.
Consider the votes cast throughout the county this election.
If you add the votes for Democratic candidates and the votes for Republican candidates over the three congressional districts that fragment Salt Lake County, you get 225,189, 56 percent, for the Ds and 177,093, 44 percent, for the Rs.
Most striking is the breakdown for the part of the 2nd District that lies in Salt Lake County. There, a totally inexperienced, totally unknown, massively underfunded Democratic candidate named Shireen Ghorbani whacked the nearly-as-unknown, but well-financed incumbent, Republican Chris Stewart, with 71 percent of the district’s Salt Lake County vote.
A properly drawn Salt Lake County district might well happen after the 2020 Census, what with the passage of the state’s anti-gerrymandering Prop 4. It wouldn’t just be Salt Lake County. The population of the county is so large that part of it — likely the southern areas that are culturally more Utah County anyway — would have to be left out.
But the remaining communities of Salt Lake County, properly constituting its own community-of-interest district, would clearly not only be more Democratic, it might be really, really Democratic.
With someone like Ghorbani doing so well in the county, even with no money and no name recognition, it seems clear that such a district would not only be blue, it would be dark blue. McAdams might not be liberal enough.
Instead, the district might be a better fit for Ghorbani. Or, if the district were really leaning Democrat, a donkey with more political clout and less of a kamikaze complex might be the choice.
Can you say Congressman Jim Dabakis?
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has seen enough ugly campaign ads to last him the rest of his life. email@example.com Twitter, @debatestate