In choosing to throw the one genuine candidate for Utah’s U.S. Senate seat under the bus last week, Utah Democrats did more than just leave the top spot on their 2022 election ticket blank.
By surrendering the race against a beatable Republican Sen. Mike Lee before it began, choosing instead to back the campaign of independent, conservative candidate Evan McMullin, delegates to the Utah Democratic Convention did more than say they have no chance in the marquee statewide race. They also sent a message that there’s not much reason to vote for, or run as, Democrats in this state, now or in the foreseeable future.
The chances of Democrat Kael Weston capturing Lee’s seat in November were quite slim. Still, a robust, dedicated Senate campaign behind the candidate who whomped 2nd District Republican Rep. Chris Stewart in 2020 in Salt Lake County (while losing badly in the rest of the gerrymandered district) is what any political organization should undertake as a party-building activity.
Politics, played correctly, is a long game. Parties need not only leadership and fundraising but also a sustained ground game, organizing at the neighborhood level, knocking on doors, making phone calls and keeping a eye out for people who might make good candidates for every office from county council on up.
Utah Democrats have none of that going for them, and haven’t for a long time. If Utah is to be a proper democracy, one that isn’t dominated by an increasingly right-wing Republican Party (as demonstrated at their state convention that same day), it needs a strong Democratic Party, if only to keep the GOP honest and representive of the center-right political core of Utah.
McMullin may well have the best chance of beating Lee. And he is no Democrat. He’s just not Mike Lee, not tarred with the suspicion that Lee is stuck with, that he is party to the aborted plot to overturn the last presidential election.
In Utah, registered Republicans outnumber declared Democrats 874,000 to 236,000. (Another 482,000 are unaffiliated and some 89,000 are registered to smaller political parties.) We are a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the U.S. senator since Frank Moss in 1970.
It is rational to worry that, were Weston and McMullin both on the November ballot, they would split the anti-Lee vote and make it easier for the incumbent to make his way to a third term.
By Utah Democratic Party rules, if a candidate gets 55% or more of the vote in convention, that candidate becomes the party’s nominee in the November general election without the need to go through the June 28 primary election. So it could be argued that, by getting 57% of the Democratic delegates to back the no-candidate-for-us motion, McMullin played within the rules. Weston also passed on the opportunity to get on the primary ballot by gathering signatures on a petition, trusting his fate to the party’s convention.
This year, the rank and file of both major political parties were shut out of any real decision-making power, which is bad for democracy and for our government as a whole.
This is the kind of anti-democratic politics Utah has to put up with, in part because of the whole benighted caucus and convention system, which entrusts far too much power to far too few convention delegates. Delegates who, on the Republican side, skew way to the radical right and who, on the Democratic side, show no stomach for the kind of hard work and long-term thinking that are needed to be successful in finding and backing winning candidates.
The weaker the Democrats get, the further to the right the Republicans go. The less our government will represent the true values of a mostly center-right electorate. The more often Democrats will have to settle for someone who really holds none of the center-left values of most Democrats and hope they can at least back someone who isn’t credibly accused of trying to steal an election.
The first step in what will be a long process to build a strong Democratic Party in Utah will have to be at the level of the state Legislature. This is where election laws are made, where the undemocratic convention system is protected and where legislative and congressional districts are gerrymandered, er, drawn. It’s also where all political parties build their bench, developing candidates for statewide and federal office.
Even Utahns who have never voted for anything but Republicans need a strong Democratic Party in their state.