SALT LAKE CITY — What made the difference for Rep.-elect Burgess Owens in Utah’s competitive 4th Congressional District race?
Everything, says Utah GOP Chairman Derek Brown.
“When you have hundreds of thousands of votes cast for a congressional district and your candidate wins by only a couple thousand votes, the answer to what made the most difference is: Everything,” Brown told KSL.com.
Last month, Owens defeated incumbent Rep. Ben McAdams in the 4th District by 3,756 votes out of 355,611 counted, a difference of one percentage point.
As Owens’ inauguration grows closer, KSL.com is looking back on this year’s elections. We spoke with both Brown and Utah Democratic Party Chair Jeff Merchant for a review of the 4th District race, and the parties’ statewide performances more broadly, as they look ahead to the prospect of more divided government in Washington and a Republican supermajority at home.
While one party’s chairman saw an overwhelming election sweep and another saw a split electorate, both were enthusiastic about their party’s future in the state.
‘Could not be more pleased’
The “everything” Brown referred to leading to victory in the 4th District included, among other things, an intense mail campaign from both candidates, driving up turnout in the Republican-learning district, and Amelia Powers Gardner’s efforts as the Utah County clerk/auditor to improve voting in the county. Brown believes long Election Day lines may have hurt then-Rep. Mia Love in her 2018 election loss to McAdams, and Powers Gardner took over the office after that.
“Amelia Gardner has been a phenomenal clerk,” Brown said, but added that he believes the thing that made the “most difference” in races statewide was an “overall focus on just getting out the vote.”
Brown said with “arguably one” exception — perhaps Ashlee Matthews’ win over state Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns — the Utah Republican Party “literally won every race that we set out to win.”
“Every statewide race, every federal race, virtually every state House and Senate race,” Brown said. “And for me, I’m also thrilled that, for the first time in a long time, we have a supermajority on the Salt Lake County Council — a veto-proof supermajority.”
That supermajority was earned by a razor-thin victory from Laurie Stringham, who challenged and defeated incumbent at-large Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani by 1,189 votes.
Republicans Dave Alford and Dea Theodore also won open county council seats previously held by the GOP.
“I could not be more pleased with the state of how things turned out,” Brown said.
I think there was a higher level of voter awareness and information this year than we’ve ever hard
–Derek Brown, Utah GOP Chairman
In stark contrast with states like Pennsylvania and Georgia, Brown said, the voters who waited the longest and voted the latest in Utah trended toward the Republican Party. That allowed candidates like Stringham and state Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, to overcome election night deficits and win their seats.
On election night, Eliason’s deficit was “almost 1,000 votes,” Brown said. Considering that less than 20,000 were cast, Brown said Eliason’s comeback was particularly noteworthy. Republicans ended up losing just one seat they previously held in the Utah House after they were earlier on track to drop three.
Brown said the GOP worked hard through Election Day to get voters to return their ballots and, if necessary, “cure” any problems with them found by county commissioners’ offices, like unmatching signatures.
“Our largest push came, literally, 36 to 48 hours before Election Day,” Brown said, “where most of the political advertising had, sort of, calmed down and people were waiting to see the results — assuming that almost everybody had voted. As a party, we were in overdrive those last few hours. We left it all on the field up until the last moment.”
Some Republican candidates participated in COVID-conscious door-knocking, and Brown said most voters were “very welcoming” because of the dearth of social interaction this year. But overall, Brown said the party’s efforts were overwhelmingly remote and through the mail — which had unexpected upsides, he said. It eliminated candidates’ travel time and allowed them to “just spend their time on phone calls, or on Zoom calls, or some other venue” like debating, he said.
“So in some ways, I think there was a higher level of voter awareness and information this year than we’ve ever had,” he said.
Did the coronavirus pandemic hamper Democrats’ efforts this year? Brown doesn’t think so.
“I think it’s more of an excuse,” Brown said. “Everyone was on the same playing field. Everyone was equally disadvantaged.”
‘This year was a draw’
Contrary to Brown’s narrative, Democratic party chair Merchant sees a Utah electorate “as split as it has ever been.”
“I think what surprised me more than anything this year is this year was a draw,” Merchant told KSL.com. “The races that we picked up, we picked up by a few hundred votes. The races that we lost, we lost by a few hundred votes. The two exceptions to that on our end were Ben McAdams and Shireen Ghorbani, who lost by a couple thousand votes — but those were also races where literally hundreds of thousands of votes were cast.”
While the Democratic Party faced upstart defeats on a local level, and Utah swung to Trump by over 300,000 votes, President-elect Joe Biden, netted the highest percent of ballots for a Democratic presidential nominee in the Beehive State since 1964.
COVID-19 was also uniquely difficult for Democrats, Merchant said, explaining that he believes “2020 was a tough year for Democrats because while many Republicans flouted COVID-19 restrictions across the country, Democrats didn’t do that.”
“I don’t think that Ben McAdams did any door-to-door work, primarily because he didn’t want to endanger members of his community and he didn’t want to endanger his volunteers,” Merchant noted.
However, while door-to-door efforts were off the table, mobilization continued.
“The Democratic Party had over 300 full-time volunteers in addition to regular staff, where in 2016 we had about 77,000 direct voter contacts, and in 2020 we had over 2.5 million. We increased Democratic registration by almost 50%,” Merchant explained.
Now we have two very, very competitive Senate races in the state of Georgia, and I think we’re going to see the same thing happen in Utah.
–Jeff Merchant, Utah Democratic Party Chair
Messaging also presented challenges, Merchant noted.
“Over the last four years, the Republican message has been really based on fearmongering and getting people worried about the state of affairs we’re in,” he said. “That is always hard when your opponent is fearmongering, and your opponent is talking about things like ‘we’re going to be taken over by socialists’ or ‘we’re filled with carnage in this country.’ That’s a hard message to overcome with positivity and hope, and it’s easy to scare people.”
“I think that it’s going to be vital for the Democratic Party to continue to work on and refine its message,” Merchant said, explaining that “consistent” messaging that resonated with both swing voters and voters of color was an essential focus for Utah Democrats moving forward.
The other major goal of the party is outreach to diverse communities.
“As we move forward, I think that the Democratic Party will continue to need to have an increased focus on working with minority populations, which are growing in the state of Utah, both our Latinx community as well as our AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community, which are growing over on the west side of Salt Lake Couty and throughout Utah and Davis County as well as in Southern Utah,” Merchant said.
Georgia, the upset swing state of the 2020 election, also presents a possible roadmap for Utah Democrats. Many of Georgia’s demographic changes are similar to Utah’s, including high levels of new migration from out of state, extremely-blue urban areas, and the growth of minority voters.
When asked if Georgia would influence the Utah Democrats’ strategy in future elections, Merchant said, “We’ve already started this discussion for 2022.”
Georgia’s blue surge began four years ago, after Democrat Stacey Abrams lost her race for the governor’s seat by razor-thin margins and committed to registering hundreds of thousands of low-propensity voters of color and getting them to the polls.
What we really need to do as a party, and frankly as a state generally is begin to work on not only registering more people but also keeping them around so they aren’t one-time voters.
–Jeff Merchant, Utah Democratic Party Chair
“What we found was that over four years, constant, dedicated work in registering voters and getting people engaged in the political process led to democratic change. When I say Democratic change, I mean that with both a lowercase ‘d’ and an uppercase ‘D’,” Merchant said. “Now we have two very, very competitive Senate races in the state of Georgia, and I think we’re going to see the same thing happen in Utah.”
Consistency is key, Merchant argues.
“What we really need to do as a party, and frankly as a state generally is begin to work on not only registering more people but also keeping them around so they aren’t one-time voters. The real question in my mind is, we had 90% turnout in Salt Lake County alone. That’s more turnout than we’ve had really ever, and the question is if those people are going to come back and vote in two years?”
The Republican supermajority state legislature and their votes surrounding redistricting are the biggest threat to that consistency in Merchant’s mind.
“Redistricting is going to play a very big role in 2021 and 2022 as we get into the House and Senate elections. That redistricting process will have a major impact in people’s willingness and interest to vote. If the Utah State Legislature chooses to do what it’s done the last three election cycles and they chose to ignore communities of interest and the will of the people, I think it’ll have a dampening effect on turnout.”