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George Pyle: Was McAdams too Democratic? Or not Democratic enough?

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this Oct. 28 photo, Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams speaks following a news conference in Salt Lake City.

“If it’s a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time; that is, they will take a Republican before they will a phony Democrat.”

- Harry Truman

Harry Truman’s astute political analysis seems to have accurately predicted the outcome of the latest election in Utah’s swing 4th Congressional District.

Or maybe not.

This is Utah, after all. And the Republican supermajority in the Legislature has so gerrymandered the 4th District that neither a real Democrat nor a false one has a clear shot to victory there.

And, in this time and place, we also have a variable that Truman seems not to have anticipated. What happens when a Republican in Democratic clothing runs against a Trumpist in Republican garb?

By Truman’s light, Rep. Ben McAdams might well be seen as a phony Democrat. He sat with the Democrats, benefited from the party being in the majority and often voted with them, including on the most consequential matter of his single term in office: the impeachment of the president.

But McAdams, whether through genuine belief or political calculus (two things that don’t have to be in conflict), tacked right on matters such as a rather un-Democratic concern for deficit spending and an ungrateful lack of support for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Those positions were similar to those of the last Democrat to represent Utah in Congress, Jim Matheson, who overcame Truman’s warning seven times, starting with the election of 2000.

Matheson ran and voted against his party on matters such as abortion rights, federal aid to education and even the signature accomplishment of the Obama administration, the Affordable Care Act. It was barely enough.

Matheson won his last race, in 2012, by a plurality of less than 800 votes against Republican up-and-comer Mia Love and, rather than risk losing to Love in 2014, called it a career.

McAdams ousted Love two elections later, running as a Democratic moderate in a year when Democrats, real and otherwise, did very well nationwide.

This year, much of the contest between McAdams and eventual winner Burgess Owens turned on whether McAdams was or wasn’t a real Democrat, with McAdams saying he wasn’t and Owens — and all that outside money that filled up our TV screens for all those weeks — insisting that he was.

By Truman’s analysis, it might be that McAdams won the argument and lost the election.

McAdams might have been helped by making arguments that Owens is not really a Republican — not in the Mike Leavitt, Jon Huntsman, Mitt Romney style, anyway — but a follower of the orange fascist who, for another couple of months, resides in the White House.

In this case, it was enough for Owens to run up such a large lead in Republican Utah County, which had a huge turnout, that McAdams’ smaller advantage in Democratic Salt Lake County wasn’t enough.

But the state’s most populous county is also the bloodied victim of anti-Democratic — and anti-democratic — gerrymandering.

By splitting the county among three congressional districts, Republicans destroyed any chance the more liberal voters of Salt Lake City might have to win the kind of representation in Congress they would prefer.

Add up the Salt Lake County votes in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th districts, and Democrats take the county from Republicans, 53% to 43%, with the rest going to Libertarian and United Utah candidates.

In the part of the 2nd District that boomerangs into Salt Lake County — notably the Avenues, the University neighborhood, Harvard-Yale and the less-affluent west side — Democratic newcomer Kael Weston stomped the much better-known and better-funded incumbent Republican Rep. Chris Stewart, 76,254 votes to 36,003 votes.

But add in the parts of the 2nd that include Davis County bedroom communities and smaller cities all the way to St. George, and Stewart won reelection with nearly 59% of the vote.

A fair drawing of congressional districts would carve one out of the core of Salt Lake City. And the kind of candidate who would win election there would be a real Democrat.

Which is why it will probably never happen.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has voted for real Democrats and real Republicans over the years. But it may be a while before he votes Republican again.

gpyle@sltrib.com


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