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Richard Davis: Can Democratic Party turn itself around to win back Utah voters?

Published: Wednesday, March 26 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

To win back the voters, Democrats need to understand Utah voters and elect a chairman who does the same.

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The Democratic Party in Utah faces a critical decision in the next month. Does the party continue to be a minor player in Utah politics or does it turn itself around to win back a majority of Utah voters?

The resignation of Jim Dabakis as state party chairman this week and the election of a successor offers that choice. Dabakis accomplished much for the party in raising significant amounts of money and helping build bridges between the Democratic Party and the LDS Church.

However, the Democratic Party’s long-term electoral slide has only gotten worse. The party lost five legislative seats in 2012. It will face a tough battle this year to hold onto seats being vacated by some retiring Democrats both in the Legislature and Congress.

Things were not always this bad. Forty years ago, Democrats held the governorship (and had for 10 years) and 43 of the 75 legislators were Democrats, as well as most of the congressional delegation.

What happened in the interim? One explanation is the Democratic Party stopped courting Utah voters. When a political party gives up on winning elections, it no longer reaches out to the voters. Instead, it becomes focused on other priorities such as ideological purity, and therefore narrows its base rather than broadens it. Such parties no longer make a difference in terms of public policy. Important decisions regarding education, transportation, health care and clean air are made without them. Sadly, that is where the state Democratic Party is today.

Nor is there a consensual solution available. One camp in the party says that only true progressives can win. Another says that progressives cannot win.

The problem is voters don’t think in such stark ideological terms. It is true that a majority of Utah voters self-identify as conservatives. And in most districts around the state, a candidate who self-identifies as a liberal or progressive will be beaten soundly by a candidate who says he or she is conservative.

But voters don’t really want conservatism in everything. They don’t want a conservative, minimalist approach to their own child’s education. They want government to do something when their neighbors violate zoning laws, a crime wave strikes nearby houses, or a family breadwinner loses a job.

The successful Democratic candidate uses the term conservative to define himself or herself, as do most Utah voters, but is also aware that voters actually aren’t as conservative in practice as in rhetoric. Utah voters do want government to work in their behalf. That’s why many Republican legislators campaign from the right, but then usually move back to the middle when they face citizen demands for government action on this or that issue.

Also, Utah voters do want change. They want things to be better for their children than they were for themselves — better educational opportunities, better jobs and a higher standard of living.

But they don’t want change that threatens their way of life. That’s why Utah voters have opposed social change such as legal abortion and gay marriage. They perceive those changes as perilous to them. The LDS Church’s positions on those issues have reinforced that sense of threat and the need to vote for candidates who believe similarly. They also view Washington as the source of radical change, and a government that is out of their control. State government, by contrast, is considered more malleable to the will of Utah voters and therefore more reflective of their views.

To win back the voters, Democrats need to understand Utah voters and elect a chairman who does the same. If they continue as they have in the recent past, a two-party system will remain only a distant memory for Utah voters.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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