It is understandable why two of Utah’s leading Democratic politicians might have thought their party had no hope of unseating two-term incumbent Republican Mike Lee in the 2022 Senate race. Why they convinced the rest of their party to stand down from that contest and back independent Evan McMullin instead.
The current Salt Lake County mayor, Democrat Jenny Wilson, was crushed by Republican Mitt Romney in 2018. (She probably would have done at least a little better if long-time Republican incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch, who might have reached his sell-by date at that point, hadn’t stepped aside in Romney’s favor.) Her predecessor as mayor, Democrat Ben McAdams, narrowly elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018, managed only one term before losing a squeaker to Republican Burgess Owens in 2020.
So, they decided, Utah is No Country for Old Democrats. Or young ones. At least not in a statewide race.
The primary goal of Utah Democrats, Wilson and McAdams argued, was to oust the Trumpist lapdog Lee, and whatever furthered that goal was the right thing to do. McMullin was already well along into his challenge and, the theory went, a three-way race would have only boosted Lee’s odds. If the likely Democratic nominee, Kael Weston, had appeared on the ballot alongside Lee and McMullin, the thinking went, Weston and McMullin would split whatever anti-Lee vote there was and usher the incumbent to an easy reelection.
But, after a series of polls that showed the race a toss-up, Lee wound up capturing 55% percent of the statewide vote and appears primed to hold on to that Senate seat as long as he is able to sit up and take nourishment. Or until a Republican president appoints him to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The thing about elections, as with so many other things in life, is that you make a choice and you can’t rewind the tape and see how it would have worked out if you had tried something different.
We should talk about Dennis
But, just as a thought experiment, let me tell you about my cousin Dennis.
Dennis Pyle is a member of the Kansas Senate. A really, really conservative member of that body. (Genes aren’t everything, I guess. And, technically, he’s a second cousin.)
After tussling with the Republican leadership about exactly how to gerrymander that state’s congressional districts and how best to approach a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution (which failed), he was stripped of his committee assignments, dropped his Republican affiliation and set out to run for governor as an independent. Mostly, as my opposite number at The Kansas City Star explains, out of spite.
With most of the dust settled, Kansas has reelected its incumbent Democratic governor, Laura Kelley, widely considered to be among the most vulnerable incumbents in the country, with just a smidge under 50% of the vote. Her Republican challenger, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, drew about 47% of the vote. And Cousin Dennis finished at 2%.
Earlier in the week, it appeared that, had all of Pyle’s votes gone to Schmidt, Schmidt would have eked out a win. As the votes continued to be counted, Kelley’s lead grew just enough to deny Dennis the title of outright spoiler. Though you can never tell how the dynamics would have turned had it been a straight head-to-head race.
Kansas is just about as conservative as Utah, but five of the last nine governors elected were Democrats, three of them women. It seemed to me, when I was covering politics in the Sunflower State, that many elections came down to Sensible Mom vs. Doofy Dad, and Mom usually won.
One of those Kansas Moms was Kathleen Sebelius, who was elected governor twice before going on to become Barack Obama’s secretary of health and human services. A cartoon about Obama and Sebelius struggling through the rocky launch of Obamacare’s healthcare.gov website made her the only person I know who was on the cover of The New Yorker.
So, the it-might-have-been for Utah Democrats is whether, had they backed Weston with all their resources - probably boosting their other candidates up and down the ticket - would the split have been different? Instead of Weston and McMullin splitting the anti-Lee vote, would Lee and McMullin have split the conservative vote and provided Weston with a path to victory?
Ummm, probably not. At least not this year.
Another year of gerrymandering
In a math exercise I do every two years, I’ve again calculated that if you add up all the votes for Democratic candidates for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives cast by voters in Salt Lake County, they top the Republican vote.
This year, that vote is roughly 135,000 to 127,000 in the Democrats’ favor. And that’s with all four Republican House members being well-funded incumbents and all four Democrats being broke and with name recognition slightly above zero.
But Salt Lake County is seriously and shamelessly gerrymandered, split across all four congressional districts, so that majority counts for nothing.
The Republican excuse for this constitutionally offensive split of the state’s most populous - and most liberal - county is they like having all four congressional districts with both urban and rural constituencies, so both the urban core and the more sparsely populated areas will have a champion in Congress.
But the only real reason to split Salt Lake County among four members of Congress is that we will have four times the pull when seeking federal boodle - highway money, transit grants, stuff like that.
Fine. But it comes at the expense of all those Salt Lake County folks with Black Lives Matter signs, We Support Bears Ears placards and pride flags in their yards having absolutely zero representation in Congress. They offer us money in return for ignoring our values. Of course.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, was too busy eating BBQ and ice cream at the 1978 Pyle Family Reunion to notice if Cousin Dennis was there.