A consensus is emerging about the last election on the federal level: 1) the punditry and elites — and many in Congress — are out of touch with millions of voters who feel overlooked and forgotten; 2) voters want to “drain the Washington swamp,” and 3) the Democrats' progressive agenda has moved too far to the left.
Washington Republicans now have an opportunity and a challenge: Can they govern? The Affordable Care Act is only one example of what they face. House Republicans have voted to repeal Obamacare with dozens of meaningless show votes. But how to replace it now they’re in power? The ACA has lots of costly benefits: no denial for pre-existing conditions; coverage of dependents, even married ones, until age 26; no copays for wellness and pregnancy-exams care, and no lifetime-care dollar limit. Even President-elect Donald Trump has hedged on taking away some of these benefits because of their popularity.
Moreover, under the ACA, states have the option to extend Medicaid to everyone under 138 percent of the federal poverty level, and the federal government will foot 100 percent of the bill ratcheting down to 90 percent. All the blue states and many red states have expanded Medicaid to tens of millions, leaving only about 20 states that haven’t. If the Republicans freeze this generous expansion to get hold of its considerable costs, they would penalize conservative states such as Utah and Texas that have not expanded. This is a mere sample of the complexity that imposing Republican principles onto existing programs will create.
Trump hasn’t talked about gaining control of entitlements or grappling with the gargantuan federal deficit. Not only is it a core Republican tenet, it’s increasingly a practical necessity.
Now, we’ll see how the Republicans do as they take the helm in Congress and the White House. May they be successful in resolving our country’s problems and grasping its many opportunities.
Meanwhile, at home, Utah Democrats’ vaunted hopes for big gains in the Legislature completely evaporated. With a net gain of only one House seat and no change in the Senate, they now hold a mere 13 of 75 seats in the House and five of 29 in the Senate — a paltry 17 percent of each body — all located in the northern part of Salt Lake County.
Democratic pols licked their chops at gaining several seats in the Utah House and control of the Salt Lake County Commission. Their optimism arose out of Republicans’ ambivalence about voting for candidate Trump. Some said they were leaving the party entirely. Others voted for Hillary Clinton as the lesser of two evils; still others supported the fresh young independent conservative Evan McMullin. These factors combined to create a unique Democratic opportunity: Record numbers of Republicans would probably not vote a straight ticket, a boon to Democrats’ political fortunes. Once Republicans “broke” open their ballots, they might consider voting for a Democrat or two.
In the one federal race the Democrats saw real daylight, Love v. Owns, they spent a ton of effort and money. Rep. Mia Love had seemed vulnerable in a rematch with Doug Owens, who gave her a stiff challenge in 2014. But she garnered a comfortable 12-point win, thereby effectively building a firewall around her incumbency. Sen. Mike Lee and Reps. Rob Bishop, Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart cruised to crushing wins, and Gov. Gary Herbert nailed an impressive 2-to-1 margin of victory.
In fact, Republican turnout was not depressed. Many came to the polls later than expected, but come they did. Some legislative races were uncomfortably close, and the Snelgrove v. Kanter Salt Lake County Commission contest was initially exciting. But the final results changed almost nothing in our political landscape. At the final bell, the Democrats’ hopes of converting alienation from Trump into significant electoral gains evaporated.
Utah Democrats have two stark choices: Continue as a marginalized minority with no effective voice in Utah government or recruit candidates with political positions that resonate with independent and moderate Republican voters. Many Utahns want a responsible center-left party to balance and offset the anti-government, libertarian voice on the Republican extreme right. But Democrats haven't been able to fill that spot for a long time.