Jeff Merchant: Utah Democratic party needs to keep Republicans on their toes

Democrats did not make a mistake in sitting out the 2022 Senate election.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) From left, Sen. Mike Lee and independent challenger Evan McMullin participate in a debate ahead of the election for U.S. Senate at Utah Valley University, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2022.

With Election Day finally behind us, Utah Democrats have a lot to talk about, and what everyone seems to be discussing is whether it was a mistake to not nominate our own Senate candidate. This question will be debated for a long time, but as hard as it was to sit this race out, Utah Democrats did not make a mistake.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: a Democrat was not going to win a statewide race in Utah in 2022. A popular theory floating around Democratic circles is that if Democrats had a candidate, we would have split the vote and won.

The old “we can split the vote” argument is a popular one, but it ignores the math. In Utah, even when we have had strong third-party candidates, their mere existence on the ballot has not undermined Republican support enough to lead to Democratic victory.

Of course, there is one (and only one) contrary example of this. Way back in 1958, when Frank Moss won his first election to the Senate. He defeated Arthur V. Watkins and J. Bracken Lee, two very well-known Republicans, and became Utah’s Senator with less than 40% of the vote. It is an exciting tale, but it was also 64 years ago. Things have changed.

More recent elections provide better examples. Ross Perot’s very strong showing in 1992 should have helped Bill Clinton win Utah, but instead actually hurt him (he placed third behind George H.W. Bush and Perot). In 2016, when Evan McMullin ran for president as an independent against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, he managed to keep Trump under 50% in Utah, but Clinton did not even break 30%.

There are enough Republican votes in Utah that even if evenly split between two candidates, the Democrat is still likely to lose. While I certainly believe that will eventually change, for now, it is a challenge Democrats have to face.

Of course, it hurt not to have a Democrat on the ballot. Psychologically and, perhaps, in other ways, most Democrats felt pain not being able to vote for a Democratic candidate for Senate. That sting, though, is tempered by the powerful messages Utah Democrats sent locally and nationally — messages that had practical and long-lasting implications.

First, Utah Democrats made it clear that democracy is more important than partisanship. Sure, we had Democrats who refused to vote for McMullin on “principle,” but just what was that principle? At the end of the day, Democrats who refused to vote for McMullin simply helped Mike Lee, and our democracy deserves much better than Lee.

Second, for the first time in a long time, Utah Democrats started thinking outside the box. Clearly, Democratic messaging, advocacy and operations in Utah have not worked — at least, they have not worked well enough.

Utah voters care about the issues Democrats advance, but that has not translated into Democratic votes. That is not the voters’ problem, that is the party’s problem. Utah Democrats are finally trying different tactics, and frankly it is about time. Mistake or not, at least we tried something new.

Third, we cannot be myopic about the 2022 election cycle. Utah was not the only state with a Senate campaign, and for a state whose Senate races have been ignored since the 1990s, it had national implications. This race was the closest Senate race in Utah in 30 years. As a result, conservative PACs spent millions of dollars in Utah – money that could have been spent in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona or Nevada. It could easily be argued that the distraction Utah Democrats created helped secure a Democratic Senate.

It is hard to accept that Democrat’s unique experiment in Utah politics failed — Mike Lee really should not have a seat in the U.S. Senate. But a mistake? No.

The only mistake will be if Utah Democrats buy into the notion that we should return to the old ways of doing things — to be happy losing while making a point instead of winning races and governing well.

We tried a different approach in 2022, and it didn’t work. Let’s hope we keep seeking and finding new and inventive approaches to keep the Republicans on their toes.

(Photo courtesy Jeff Merchant) Jeff Merchant

Jeff Merchant, Salt Lake City, is former chair of the Utah Democratic Party.