As it always is in Utah, 2012 was a terrible year for the Utah Democrats. This time, all but 5 State Senate and 14 State House seats went to the Republicans, with nearly every other elected office in state or county races falling into GOP hands. Outside of Salt Lake County, no Democrat holds any significant elected office. Yet we haven’t lost everything. Congressman Jim Matheson, our only Democratic Representative in the state, pulled off a squeaker of a win; less than 1%. And we even managed a surprising winning margin of 9% with State Senator Ben McAdams in the Salt Lake County Mayoral race.
But I believe we shouldn’t sit back and accept that this is all we can hope for. I think that we can expand beyond our tiny victories. I think that if we take advantage of the changing demographics in Utah, and really put up a fight with skilled candidates, we can surprise the world of politics.
So let’s take a look at the voting trends and demographics of various areas to see where we can win (and the one or two areas we’re in trouble), starting with legislative districts. All information in this diary is derived from the state elections results and each legislator's official demographics analysis of their district.
Senate District 3: While Senate Districts 1-2 and 4-5 are all safe Democratic (none of the Democratic incumbents got less than 55% of the vote), Senate District 3 (made up of parts of Salt Lake City and the separate city of South Salt Lake) is a bigger concern. SD 3 is currently represented by Minority Leader Gene Davis, a veteran Democrat who has served in the state House and Senate since 1987.
He seems like he should be an easy victor in liberal SLC and South Salt Lake, especially since the House districts contained partially within SD3 were mostly Dem-leaning this last election (though not completely, which I will cover later), yet Senator Davis doesn’t win as handily as he should. He hasn’t cracked 55% in any of his elections (even 2006), and in wave years like 2002 and 2010, he barely won by about 3 percentage points each time. As a veteran legislator who doesn’t do anything to anger his supporters, Davis shouldn’t be this close to defeat. Hopefully 2014 isn’t a wave year, because Davis is weak precisely where Utah Dems are not.
Senate District 8: For now, this is the only other State Senate seat that I could see going to us. It’s a Salt Lake City (and suburb city Midvale) seat, held by freshman Republican Brian Shiozawa (who is the only minority the Republicans in the state senate have, if you don’t count the one female senator on their side). He’s an interesting technocrat type, being a former doctor who won 56-44% against the much hyped Josie Valdez (part of a husband and wife duo who were supposed to serve in the House and Senate respectively).
Shiozawa doesn’t seem like he could be dislodged by any charges of extremism, having a moderate demeanor and not doing anything to attract attention so far. Valdez tried to turn out the Latino and liberal vote, but looking at the demographics of the district (only 13% Latino, and full of real estate and finance sector types), we may need a self-funder, especially one who can appeal to middle-class and rich people. Valdez is not an option this time around, as she was elected Vice-Chair of the Utah Democrats after the national election.
Senate District 12: I don’t really see this seat ever going to us, but it’s current holder, Republican Daniel Thatcher seems to be rather weak for a Utah GOP “some dude” type, winning by only 5 points in 2010. He represents a large chunk of rural Toole County, and the western-most portion of Salt Lake City/County (including Magna and parts of minority-filled West Valley City). His win was 52-47% against Brent Goodfellow. Goodfellow was a 26-year incumbent (22 in House, 4 in state senate), but unfortunately Goodfellow is 72 and won’t try again.
If I had to pick a Democratic challenger, it’d be one of the two Democratic state reps in his district; Susan Duckworth (HD 22) or Janice Fisher (HD 30). If I had to pick either one, I’d go for Duckworth, as she received 73% in 2012, while representing the much more conservative Magna (and would presumably get more of the urban vote). Fisher only received 52% even while being a decades-long force within urban West Valley. Still, either representative, or a new challenger could theoretically get the 18% Latino population to turn out a respectable number of votes.
State House Districts:
HD 9: A Weber County-based district held by two-term Republican Jeremy Peterson. I think this could be a great possibility with the right candidate, despite the fact that Peterson had a 60.55-39.45% win in 2012. First, the demographics of the district are encouraging, with 24% of the population being Latino, with Ogden, the largest city in the district being 30% Latino. There’s also 18,000-strong Weber State University in the district (or in its neighbor HD 10), which could be mobilized in our favor. Unfortunately, Peterson has already beaten a strong candidate twice; he unseated seven-term Democratic incumbent Neil Hansen in 2010, and beat Hansen in 2012 by 60.55-39.46%, as previously mentioned. The district seems to be a poor, manufacturing-based district, with 54% of the population making under $45,000 per year. A candidate who can pull together a coalition of students, poor people, and Latinos would be ideal.
HD 10: This is another Weber County district, and just like HD 9, it’s got a two-term Republican holding it. Dixon Pitcher (yes, that’s his name) served in the same seat for a single term in the 80s, but didn’t hold the seat again until 2010. Like Peterson, Pitcher seems to be beatable; Pitcher got 54.14-45.86% against school administrator Randy Rounds, and 53.91-46.09% against no-name Christopher Winn in 2012. Again, just as in HD 9, the Latino population is massive at 26%, and 9% of the population being “other single race” (whatever that means). HD 10 also has a large population of educators, social assistants, and healthcare professionals, making up 21% of the workforce. A candidate who can bring together educators, students, and Latinos would be ideal.
HD 33: Held by Republican Craig Hall, this should really be an easy victory for us. Hall is a freshman representing a heavily minority (32% Latino, 5% Pacific Islander, 2% Black and Native American, and 5% Asian) district in West Valley City, and votes as a basically standard Utah Republican. He won by 51.96% to Democrat Liz Muniz’s 48.04%. My guess is that he managed to win because of the excitement for Romney’s candidacy among Utah whites, so a rematch with him and Liz Muniz would end in a narrow defeat for Hall. Like most Utah GOP legislators, he seems to be a “some dude” type. I would recommend either Muniz running again, or someone with a similar talent in turning out minority (especially Latino) votes.
HD 34: Held by two-term Republican Johnny Anderson, I think this is a district we have a shot at, similar to Craig Hall’s district. This West Valley district has a large minority population (18% Latino, 3% Black, 1% American Indian, 4% Asian and 2% Pacific Islander), and should be an easy Democratic win. However, compared to Hall, Anderson will be harder to beat, since he’s been serving since 2009, but It think it’s possible, as it seems his district has been sacrificed to ensure a safe Republican seat somewhere else. I don’t know how else to explain his 61% win in 2010 being reduced to a 52-47% win against Celina Milner (yes, another Democratic Latina, though one with an Anglo name) in 2012. A Celina Milner rematch would probably be the best bet to oust Anderson, but really, anyone who can portray themselves as a responsive, minority-inspiring candidate could do well. Additionally, anyone who can hammer Anderson on his vote to gut Utah’s open records laws (a big issue here in Utah), will do well.
HD 38: This Kearns-centered district is represented by ten-term Republican Eric Hutchings, who seems to be fairly entrenched. Even more discouraging is his 57-42% victory over first-time candidate Elias McGraw (who is another Latino with a misleadingly Anglo name). However, the demographics look good; 28% Hispanic, 2% Asian, and 3% Pacific Islander is nothing to sniff at. And HD 38 is represented in the state senate by a veteran Democrat, so that’s also a plus. I’d say that a better campaigner with more funding and support could make this a closer race, because in terms of raw votes, McGraw’s 3,633 to Hutchings’s 5,079 isn’t insurmountable.
Other than these districts, there doesn’t seem to be any that are immediately competitive; most vote for the Republican by a 20-point margin at best. Still, it’s a start. And I'll just leave you all with an article mentioning the rise of Latino candidates in Utah politics: It mentions most of the Latino candidates I've talked about here.
April 23 2013: Looking through elections again, it seems I've missed a few potentially vulnerable House districts.
HD 39: I’m calling this Taylorsville-based district potentially vulnerable, as five-term incumbent Jim Dunnigan performed somewhat worse in 2012 than he did in 2010. Both times were against no-name opponents; in 2010 he got 60-34%, with a Libertarian taking the rest, and in 2012 he received 60%-39%. A difference of 9% against a second no name opponent (and without a Libertarian to soak up dissatisfied Republican votes) is fairly significant, especially with the vote totals as low as they are in a fairly urbanized area (6,803 to 4,528). Additionally, the Hispanic population is 21% here, and a good 45% of the population makes less than $75,000. So while I don’t think this seat will be ours anytime soon, it has some potential for Democrat growth if they can appeal to those populations, and if Dunnigan retires, it could turn a little more Democratic. We just need a candidate that’s well-known and liked enough to flip a little over a thousand votes. Unfortunately, I have no idea who that could be.
HD 45: This Sandy-based district seems like it should be safe Republican, as it has a low Hispanic population and covers a fairly middle-class suburban area, but for whatever reason two-term incumbent Steve Eliason seems to be unpopular, winning by a roughly 300 voter margin (50.29-45.93%) in 2010 with a Constitution Party candidate taking nearly 4%, and by a 9-point margin in 2012 (54.83-45.17%) with a more densely-populated district and no Constitution Party candidate. Of particular note is Laura Black, Eliason’s 2010 opponent. While she and the 2012 Dem candidate seem to be no names, the 2010 election results article mentions that Black was “elected leader of a 2,000 member teacher advocacy group”. And 22% of the district is employed in education, healthcare, or social assistance fields. So it looks like a Dem with ties to education could make this a race worth watching.
HD 63: I’m not actually sure if this is a vulnerable seat or not, as it’s got conflicting election results. It’s a Provo-based district (even has Brigham Young University) represented by two-termer Dean Sanpei, who is one of two Japanese-Americans in the Utah legislature (the other is State Senator Brian Shiozawa, who I thought was the other minority Utah Republicans have). Sanpei was first elected in 2010 with 56.56% to long-time Utah County Democrat activist Donald Jarvis’s 43.44%. A thirteen-point margin might seem unbeatable at first, but looking at the actual number of ballots, it’s a lot more hopeful than it seems. The numbers end up being 1,225 to 941 (or 1,426 to 1,052), and this is in a college/suburban district (though admittedly the college is BYU). So if we could get the right Democrat here, we might be able to win in the heart of conservative Utah. Unfortunately, Sanpei didn’t get a challenger in 2012, so I can’t compare his 2010 numbers to his 2012 numbers. Still, getting only 56% of the vote in 2010 in an ultra-conservative district is not good for Sanpei.