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Richard Davis: Utah Democrats must adapt to become a viable political party

Published: Sunday, Nov. 25 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Nicholas Kristof wrote a recent column expressing his concern about where Republicans go now that they've lost the presidential election. He is worried that Republicans will not adapt, even though a vibrant Republican Party (and "not just a collection of tea party cranks") is essential to "hold Obama's feet to the fire." A two-party system, he argues, is critical to the health of a political system, whether it is at the national or state level. The result of not adapting, he fears, will be the decline of a viable two-party system.

But what is significant about Kristof's conclusions is how relevant they are to Utah and the Democratic Party. There is no two-party system in Utah. The 2012 election results show that reality starkly. Not only did President Barack Obama take only one-quarter of the vote in Utah, which was the worst performance by a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992, but statewide and federal candidates didn't do much better. No Democratic statewide candidate won more than one-third of the vote, and only one Congressional candidate, Jim Matheson, won more than 40 percent of the vote.

The prospect of a two-party system has become increasingly remote. No Democrat has won statewide office since Jan Graham was re-elected as attorney general in 1996. No Democrat has been elected governor or U.S. senator since Scott Matheson in 1980 and Frank Moss in 1970, respectively. In the 1970s, Democrats held a majority in both houses of the state Legislature. By 1992, there were 11 Democrats in the state Senate and 26 in the House. Today, only five Democrats sit in the 29-member state Senate while only 14 are in the 75 member House.

As a result, the Democratic Party in Utah is in no position to hold the governor and the legislative majority's "feet to the fire." The party is too emaciated to be viable in statewide or Congressional elections. The party is truly competitive only in Salt Lake County, as indicated by the defeat of Rep. Christine Watkins, the lone Democrat from outside the county.

Kristof argues that if Republicans don't adapt, they will commit political suicide. From recent election results, it seems that the state Democratic Party already has committed suicide. Yet, there is hope, if the party is willing to adapt. There are several things the Utah Democratic Party must do to become a viable political party again.

First, it must change its position and image as a party in line with the national Democratic Party. It must reflect mainstream Utah values of fiscal conservatism, personal responsibility and wariness of radical social change. But unlike many Republican elected officials, it also must champion public education, affordable health care for all Utahns and a balanced public lands approach. It must be independent of both the national Democratic Party and the Utah Republican Party. Like Jim Matheson, Utah Democrats must put Utah first.

Second, it must be willing to embrace LDS voters. These are not just progressive LDS voters, who already identify with Democrats anyway, but moderate and even conservative LDS voters. That requires candidates, leaders and activists within the party who can speak to LDS voters from the perspective of those who understand and also agree with LDS Church positions on important issues.

Third, the party must organize across the state and not just concentrate on Salt Lake County. Of course, that will be possible only if the first two steps are taken. Utah voters outside of Salt Lake City tend to be much more conservative and are much more likely to be LDS. They won't respond to a party of the left, even an LDS left, but they will be interested in a party that provides a viable electoral alternative to Republicans who take them for granted by not addressing their concerns on crime, public education, rural issues, water, coal and a host of other issues.

Adapting is not easy for people and it certainly is difficult for political parties. But the Utah Democratic Party will have to adapt to become a viable major political party in the state again. Utah voters should encourage the party to adapt, and to do so quickly. Only then will the state once again have a competitive two-party system where each party serves as a check on the power of the other. At that point, the real beneficiaries will be the people.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and former chair of the Utah County Democratic Party.

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