The 1988 elections forecast a political winter settling over Utah Democrats. They can't win the governorship; they can't win a U.S. Senate seat; their prospects for real power going into the 21st century are dim.
Democrats also failed to win the Utah House of Representatives in Tuesday's voting, as they'd hoped.In short, the elections were, once again, a triumph for Republicans in Utah, a severe blow for the minority party Democrats.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Wilson lost a heartbreaking race Tuesday, a loss that may end his political career. But it just wasn't a loss for him personally. It was the effective death knell to any hopes of real two-party, power-sharing politics in Utah for the near future.
Republican Gov. Norm Bangerter will serve a second four-year term. He got 40 percent of the vote to Wilson's 38 percent. Independent Merrill Cook finished third with 21 percent, unofficial results show. Wilson and Bangerter each said Cook hurt him more than he hurt the other guy.
Whether Bangerter decides to run for re-election in 1992 or not, Democrats will be hard-pressed to find a candidate of Wilson's stature to run against whoever Republicans nominate that year.
Simply put, Tuesday's results show that a Democrat - even a solid, credible Democratic candidate - couldn't win a significant statewide office in Utah even when the Republican candidate has significant troubles. That's not to say Bangerter didn't run a good campaign. He did. And Wilson made his share of mistakes. But if Wilson, who held a 30-point lead in the polls earlier this year, couldn't win this race, it's hard to imagine any Democrat who could.
Not only did the Democrats lose a governorship within their grasp, but the Legislature will remain Republican for years also. If voters, who turned out in surprisingly large numbers - 75 percent in Salt Lake County and 85 percent in Utah County - won't turn out Republican legislators who voted for the largest tax increase in Utah history, they're not likely to turn them out for anything else.
The only Democratic bright spot was Rep. Wayne Owens' re-election in the 2nd Congressional District, which makes up most of Salt Lake County. But Owens' win was expected. And Owens, while in the majority party in Congress, is the token Democrat in the Utah delegation.
Sen. Orrin Hatch was returned for a third term in a landslide; Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, once again defeated his nemesis, Gunn McKay, probably ending McKay's political career; and Rep. Howard Nielson easily dispatched Democrat Bob Stringham in the 3rd Congressional District, perhaps the most Republican in the nation.
The three tax-cutting initiatives also failed, but that was also expected after their popularity dropped so quickly in polls over the past several weeks.
Democrats hoped to pick up the Utah House, but the election was a wash. They needed 11 seats and only picked up one. Clearly, the huge 13-seat gain Democrats made in 1986 halted this year. Republicans still hold a majority in the House, 47-28. On infrequent votes that require two-thirds majorities, Democrats can stall or force a compromise. But without the veto of a Democratic governor, that two-third stranglehold can only rarely be used by House Democrats. Republicans easily held on to their veto-proof majority in the Senate, where they actually picked up one seat. They now hold a 22-7 majority.
True, Democrats did pick up the attorney general's office with Paul Van Dam beating incumbent Republican David Wilkinson. But those second-tier statewide races _ attorney general, auditor and treasurer _ are aberrations. They stand alone. Utahns just got tired of Wilkinson's management and Van Dam ran TV ads that were effective, the first use of that medium in the AG's race. Besides, the attorney general holds no political power, just prosecutorial power.
Republican Auditor Tom Allen won again, as did GOP Treasurer Ed Alter, who just two weeks ago trailed Democrat Art Monson by 20 points in the polls but rushed on to soundly defeat him.
Now Owens is the only light for the Democrats. But even that could go out in two or four years. For the truth is the 2nd District is still Republican in nature. Frankly put, Republicans haven't put up their best candidates against Owens, and the veteran politician has prevailed first against Tom Shimizu in 1986 and again this year against Richard Snel-grove. If a strong GOP candidate is found in 1990, or the district modified to help Republicans in 1992 after the census, Owens could be defeated.
But it is Wilson's loss that really stuns Democrats.
He led by 30 points in early polls over Bangerter and Cook. But the lead dwindled in September and October.
Mistakes were made in the Wilson campaign, of course. Insiders say Wilson should have recognized the slippage earlier and started his anti-Bangerter TV ads two or three weeks sooner. Also, Wilson should have used some of his TV time _ hebought more than Bangerter _ to "inoculate" himself against charges that he was a big spender during his years as Salt Lake City mayor. He was such a well-liked mayor that he didn't think his mayoral record could hurt him. But it did.
Perhaps his biggest mistake, however, was that Wilson didn't take out after Cook. He treated him with kid gloves. Cook was seen by Bangerter as a parking lot _ where traditional Republicans who left Wilson's ranks would stop over on their way to the governor's camp.
Polls indeed showed that the support Wilson lost in September and October went to Cook. As voters stopped with Cook, Bangerter, Sen. Jake Garn and other Republican leaders kept telling them that Cook couldn't win _ that a vote for Cook was a vote for the "liberal" Wilson _ who still led in the polls at that time.
But Wilson wasn't saying that a vote for Cook was a vote to put Bangerter _ who many Cook supporters, even though conservative Republicans, dislike _ back in office. Wilson kept his hands off Cook, not wanting to alienate any Cook voters who may want to come back to him. It was another mistake.
Polling for the Deseret News/KSL-TV shows that Cook held two Wilson voters for every Bangerter voter. Cook cost him the election, Wilson believes, although Bangerter thinks just the opposite. "Cook hurt me more than he hurt Ted," Bangerter said early Wednesday morning. Bangerter supporters _ aware the governor starts from a difficult position in his second term _ don't like anyone thinking Bangerter owes Cook or the tax protesters a thing.
Finally, Wilson probably shouldn't have sided so closely with Bangerter against the tax initiatives, Wilson aides say. Certainly, Wilson had to oppose them. But by appearing next to Bangerter he gave the impression that Wilson and Bangerter were about the same. And why should a loyal Republican vote for a Democrat if he wasn't much different than the Republican?
Added one Democrat: "Ted didn't define himself. He didn't take Cook seriously and he believed most people would vote against Bangerter _ and that anti-Bangerter vote would naturally go to Ted because Cook wasn't a viable alternative. But it didn't happen that way."
The bottom line, however, is that Wilson's biggest problem was that he is a Democrat. And even a hurting Republican like Bangerter _ 50 percent of Utahns disapprove of his job as governor _ can beat a Democrat in Utah.