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A lonely place for Demos

Published: Wednesday, July 1 2015 11:15 a.m. MDT

 (Deseret Morning News graphic) (Deseret Morning News graphic)
PROVO — If 22 people gather in a room in Utah County, how many are Republicans, and how many are Democrats?
Well, you better drop the plural from Democrat.
Round up 22 Utah County residents registered to vote in Tuesday's election and — on average — you'd find 11 Republicans, 10 unaffiliated voters and a single Democrat.
Yes, even the unaffiliateds outnumber Democrats 10 to 1 in Utah County, and most of the unaffiliated vote Republican. No wonder the Utah County delegation to the state Legislature is made up entirely of Republicans, with one possible exception.
Republicans enjoy enough leeway in an area where a slim 4 percent of voters are registered Democrats that some move to the extreme right. The phenomenon also pulls Democrats to the center in a quest for relevance, though they aren't sure many notice.
 (Deseret Morning News graphic) (Deseret Morning News graphic)
Republicans use this to their advantage. For example, a billboard on I-15 in Provo has a simple, clever message: "Vote your values. Vote Republican."
"It turns my stomach," said Bethanie Newby, a Democrat running against Rep. Margaret Dayton, R-Provo, in Senate District 15. "I support the LDS Church stand on abortion and she supports the Utah state Republican Party stand on abortion, which is more conservative. I support more spending on education. Marriage should be between one man and one woman of legal age."
Candidates Newby, Adam Ford in Senate District 11 and Ken Peay in House District 64 are all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and graduates of Brigham Young University. Ford calls himself "a stereotypical Utah Mormon."
Religion clearly plays a role in the Republican dominance of a county where 88 percent of residents are LDS. The church appears to be subtly encouraging less single-party singlemindedness. The First Presidency declared in a letter earlier this year that principles compatible with the faith are "found in the platforms of all major political parties."
Socially conservative Democrats are the right candidates for the party to run in Utah County, BYU political science professor Quin Monson said.
"They must be moderate to conservative on social issues," he said. "In the long-term, they can start to change the image of their party in the minds of Utah County voters. If they continue to run reasonably credible candidates who are moderate to conservative on social issues, sooner or later a Republican will self-destruct in a race. Eventually one will stumble, and if the Democrats have a credible candidate on the ballot, they may break through."
They also may get crushed on Election Day, which makes life hard on Todd Taylor, who has been recruiting candidates for more than a decade as executive director of the state Democratic Party. He said election results in Utah County generally wind up 80 percent Republican to 20 percent Democrat.
"Over the past few elections, the best performance of any Democrat is 33 or 34 percent," he added. "There's a lot to be said for the courage of those few who will step up."
In 2004, David Bonner earned 31 percent of the vote in House District 56 against incumbent Republican David Cox. Cox lost his seat this summer during the Republican primary.
So, who is the last Democrat to win an election in Utah County? The answer is Tim Moran, a dozen years ago, in 1994.
And by how much did he win? By an edge-of-your-seats 30 votes, of course.
Now 88, Moran still lives in Spanish Fork. He served six terms in House District 66 and chose not to seek re-election in 1996. Moran and Utah County's only other elected Democrat at the time, state Sen. Eldon Money, left office together at the start of 1997.
Money lost his 1996 re-election bid by 155 votes, less than 1 percent. That same year, three-term U.S. Rep. Bill Orton, D-Provo, lost to Republican Chris Cannon.
Moran, Money and Orton are all members of the LDS Church, too. Moran said Money is scheduled to return later this month from a mission at the church's historical site in Kirtland, Ohio.
Since that trio lost, no Democrat has come close to winning in Utah County.
Oh, 2nd District Rep. Jim Matheson does represent a chunk of northeastern Utah County, but he gets clobbered in those precincts. In 2002, John Swallow drubbed Matheson there, 70 percent to 29. Matheson did much better in 2004, getting 36 percent, or 10,180 votes.
There's also Utah Senate minority leader Mike Dmitrich. Dmitrich lives outside the county, in Price, and when he was first elected, his district didn't include any part of Utah County. In 2001, redistricting added part of Spanish Fork and all of Mapleton to his district.
Dmitrich gets pummeled there, too, though he concentrated on other areas to defeat a Republican challenge for his seat in 2004. In the Utah County portion of the race, the Republican won, 76 percent to 21. Dmitrich got 2,162 votes in the area.
As the last Democrat to win in Utah County, Moran said he was a victim of changing demographics.
"The ultraconservatives moved into the area, and they took over," he said. "Two years before that I ran unopposed."
He advises Democrats to be patient.
"These things go in cycles," Moran said. "I can remember when the Democrats had it for years and years and years. Republicans will enjoy it until it plays out. I think it's a cycle. It'll change."
Not if Utah County Republican Party chairwoman Marian Monahan can help it.
"It's been over 10 years since Utah County sent a Democrat up to the Hill," she said. "We hope to keep it that way."
She said Dmitrich doesn't count as part of the Utah County delegation because he doesn't live in the county, but she said the county GOP helps Sen. Howard Stephenson, who lives outside the county in Draper, because Stephenson represents a large part of northern Utah County.
Dmitrich said he serves Utah County, and particularly Utah Valley State College, well. He said the overwhelming Republican delegation probably helped Utah County recently land powerful leadership positions — Senate president, House majority leader, lieutenant governor.
But he also believes county residents would do well on some committees by electing some Democrats.
"I think it means a lot to Utah Valley State College to have me on the capital facilities committee," Dmitrich said. "I think it would be better because it would be good to have a little bit more moderate voice coming out of Utah County, whether it's Democrat or Republican."
Taylor doesn't know if transportation and education problems can push one of his Democratic candidates into office on Tuesday.
"I'm not sure the issues matrix is strong enough to overcome the strong partisan nature of the area," he said. "I have a suspicion that the candidate with the best numbers will be Adam Ford. There are better issues in that race.
"We love our voters in Utah County," Taylor added, "we just wish there were more of them."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com

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