SALT LAKE CITY — It's still far from a majority, but Utah Democrats are celebrating election wins in the Utah Legislature.
Five new Democrats were elected to the Utah House of Representatives, taking them from 13 to 18 of 75 total seats, putting the party back to 2010 levels.
"Our goal was to move the needle in a minimum of three state Legislature races," said Lucinda Kindred, leader of Utah Women and Politics, a local political action committee that pushes for progressive, moderate and more diverse candidates.
She said the wins help "significantly."
Democrats also picked up another seat in the Senate, giving them 21 percent of the vote there, as well.
It's been eight years since they had so much control, even if it is less than half of what they would need to take control, said BYU political science professor Adam Brown, who closely tracks the Utah Legislature.
"The Republicans are not losing their state majority anytime soon," he said, adding that Utah's been a largely Republican state since the late 1970s.
But just as when the tea party peaked in 2010, Brown said, "there is a lot of movement" now.
The driver, he said, is President Donald Trump, who never held much of the vote share in Utah to begin with.
"He was toxic in Utah during the Republican nomination fight, he remained toxic in Utah in the general election, and he remains toxic in Utah now," Brown said. "As long as he continues pushing the particular buttons that make Utah Republicans different from other Republicans … the way he speaks of those who oppose him and the things he says about women, clash with that."
Party pushback could possibly continue throughout Trump's presidency, he said, just as it did through former President Barack Obama's — when Republicans gained 10 seats in the Utah Legislature — only in the opposite direction.
"If Trump continues more of the same, then for as long as he's president, it is reasonable to expect the same kind of discontent and increasing willingness to move," Brown said.
Utah Democrats are optimistic, even "energized by the election results showing we have grown our numbers and strengthened Utahns' Democratic voice in the House," according to a statement from the Utah House Democratic Caucus. All incumbent House Democrats who sought re-election were able to retain their seats, and preliminary vote counts show five new wins, and one race still too close to call.
"By electing more Democrats, Utahns voted for civility, collaboration and more balance on Capitol Hill," the caucus states. Other progressive wins, the Utah House Democrats say, include a majority of voters choosing to legalize medical cannabis, create safeguards against gerrymandering, and to finally expand Medicaid, after years of legislative compromises.
Brown said Utah Democrats have to make a strategic choice to either fight and never accomplish anything, or to get along where they can and get their ideas heard.1 comment on this story
They've traditionally chosen the latter.
And it has paid off, as the two parties tend to pass close to the same percentage of bills that they introduce, according to Brown's "partisan batting averages," which he posted online at adambrown.info.
"Because their strategy is to try to influence in committees and to try to persuade on the floor and to try to build up enough goodwill that they will be heard, even if they don't always win … it doesn't hurt to have a few more voices helping you," he said.