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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Democrats are hoping they can count on concern over Republican President-elect Donald Trump to compel new interest in their party as they regroup following another disappointing election year.
“I think Donald Trump represents the Democrats’ worst nightmare, and people now realize they can’t sit on the sidelines anymore,” Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said.
Corroon is launching what he’s calling a “listening tour” of Democrats around the state that will include visits to a half-dozen cities during January, starting with St. George on Friday.
Democrats are also being encouraged to fill out an online survey and participate in a task force “to find out what people think we should be doing differently to harness some of that energy we’re feeling,” he said.
Last month, Corroon said more than 50 people showed up for a routine meeting of the party’s governing state central committee in Provo, looking to get involved after the party’s dismal showing at the polls.
“It’s frustrating that even in a year with Donald Trump, Utahns still mostly pull that Republican lever,” the party leader said. “It’s always tough being a Democrat in Utah. The Trump victory just adds salt to the wounds.”
Especially since Democrats were unable to turn the discomfort many Utahns felt toward Trump into votes, despite Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign efforts in the state to win over Mormons.
There were also well-funded Democratic candidates who flooded the airwaves with TV commericals challenging Republican Gov. Gary Herbert and 4th District Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah.
In the end, though, voters stayed with Republicans as they have for years, even though they took issue with Trump’s crude statements about making advances on women as well as some of his stands, particularly on immigration.
“Voters were able to compartmentalize him and to think of him differently than they thought of the rest of their party,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
It’s not clear that will change after Trump is sworn into office, Karpowitz said.
“The question really is now whether the Republican Party changes as a result of Donald Trump’s leadership of it — and do Republicans here in Utah resist those changes,” he said, noting Trump already “underperformed dramatically” in Utah.
Clinton managed a second-place finish in Utah, a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964. She had 27.5 percent of the vote to 45.5 percent for Trump and beat independent conservative Evan McMullin by 6 percentage points.
But Clinton won only two of Utah’s 29 counties, Salt Lake and Summit. Outgoing Democratic President Barack Obama did better in 2008, winning Grand County in addition to Salt Lake and Summit.
Of course, when Mitt Romney, Utah’s adopted favorite son candidate, was at the top of the ticket in 2012, he swept every county in the state. That was also the year the last Democrat to serve in Congress from Utah, Jim Matheson, retired.
Republicans continue to hold all statewide elected executive offices as they have since Democratic Attorney General Jan Graham’s second term ended in 2001, as well as all four seats in the U.S. House and both U.S. Senate seats.
Democrats did see a net gain of a single seat in the Legislature this year, the first time since 2008 that they’ve added to their numbers. Nevertheless, Republicans will maintain a supermajority in both the House and the Senate.
“We hoped to do a lot better,” said state Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake. “We lost track of what Democrats are supposed to stand for … we’re for working people and they’re for billionaires.”
Dabakis, a former state Democratic Party chairman, said the party now has to get back to basics, reminding Utahns that Democrats stand for issues like a higher minimum wage and better funding for schools.
He said in the presidential election, Trump successfully wooed working class voters while Democrats “completely ignored the soul of the Democratic Party, which is working people.”
Utah Democrats have an opportunity to reclaim those voters, Dabakis said, by focusing on the need to bring good-paying jobs to rural areas of the state, including areas dependent on coal mining.
He also said he’s sponsoring a bill in the 2017 Legislature that would raise taxes on Utahns earning more than $500,000 a year from the flat rate of 5 percent to 7 percent to bring in more money for schools without hitting up lower-income earners.
His proposed bill, which would affect some 18,000 Utah taxpayers who he said have “benefited mightily” from the flat tax, would counter a proposed citizens initiative to increase the income tax rate for all Utahns by 0.875 percent to benefit schools.
Still, Dabakis can’t help but sound somewhat gloomy about Democrats’ prospects.
“I’m not even sure if Mitt Romney decided to run for governor as a Democrat he would win,” he said. But he said Trump’s election remains “the single most invigorating thing to happen to Utah Democrats and progressives since forever.”
But BYU political science professor Richard Davis said it’s a mistake for Democrats in Utah to look at the mistakes the party made nationally in the past election rather that focus on the social issues truly important to the state’s voters.
“That’s a fundamental problem for the Democratic Party, thinking that Utah voters are like voters in other places. They’re not. There’s a strong religious component that makes them different,” he said.
“They want to hear, do you share their values,” Davis, a former Utah County Democratic Party chairman, said of issues like abortion and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. “These social issues are a litmus test.”
Sutherland Institute President Boyd Matheson said Democrats need to learn from the mistakes Republicans made during President Barack Obama’s eight years in office and do more than simply oppose Trump.
“It’s what you are for. If Democrats follow the Republicans’ agenda and just fight for what they are against, that’s a losing agenda,” said Matheson, a former chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
But Democrats can take advantage of the fractures within the state GOP over Trump. “If they’re not looking to poke Republicans in the eye, they could show Utahns they are able to come to the table and get to some real solutions.”
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the best Democrats in the state may be able to hope for is “if things go disastrously wrong for Republicans” nationally and that spills over to candidate recruitment.
Right now, he said, would-be elected officials run as Republicans because that’s the way to win. That could change if the GOP brand is sufficiently challenged by a Trump presidency, Burbank said, but that’s not “the mostly likely outcome by any means.”
Suzanne Harrison, a Democrat who came within five votes of unseating Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, said she’s not giving up on politics after losing her first bid for public office.
“I just felt like my voice wasn’t being heard, as a mom and as a medical doctor,” Harrison said, especially on clean air issues. “The reason we did as well as we did is I worked hard. I knocked on so many doors.”
That’s critical to future Democratic victories, she said.
“Once voters meet the candidates, voters are willing to look at them and not just a party label,” she said. “If we can just get out and talk to voters, and meet with them I think our message will resonate with them.”
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