Posted By Eric Ethington on August 16, 2014
Utah Democrats and Massachusetts Republicans have a lot in common, both hanging on by a thread in states that heavily lean the other way. Democrats in Utah hold only 18 percent of the seats in the state legislature, and in Massachusetts the Republicans control only 16.5 percent. Both of these two super-minorities also face the same frequent infighting debates over whether it’s better for their candidates to boldly campaign on their Party’s ideals, or if they should present themselves as more a “lite” version of the other. But there remains one major difference: While Utah Democrats haven’t held a single statewide office since 2001 (when Democratic Attorney General Jan Graham retired), Massachusetts Republicans manage to win the big races semi-regularly, and have a decent prospect of reclaiming the governor’s office this year.
So what is the big difference between the two groups? It’s all in the campaigning. Identify a problem, help voters understand how it hurts them, illustrate how your opponent will make it worse, and provide a solution.
Any state where a single Party controls a super majority is going to have scandals. It’s inevitable. Typically they’re pretty minor, but the perception of corruption in any form is the perfect opening for a candidate who knows what they’re doing.
Take Mitt Romney’s 2002 gubernatorial race. It was his second attempt to run for office (he was thrashed when he ran against Ted Kennedy for the U.S. Senate seat in 1994), and he had severely damaged himself early on in the race when, after polling showed people found him out-of-touch with the working class, he released a series of ads showing him spending a day working in different professions—donning different outfits to herd cows and bale hay, unload a fishing boat, and haul garbage. Needless to say, working people found the ads extremely offensive, as he reduced their lives to little more than costumes.
Independent polling showed Romney losing as late as mid-October, only a couple of weeks from the election. But then something changed. His campaign began releasing new ads going after the Democratic candidate (who was the State Treasurer) for a minor-scandal that had hit earlier in the year that involved state pension funds doing badly in the stock market. The ads showed a tired and worn-out old hound dog that told voters that their “watchdog was asleep on the job.” The series of ads ran over and over, and Romney’s campaign workers talked about it at every door they knocked on. Taking it even further, he began going after his opponent’s husband, a former lobbyist, by attaching his name to the national Enron scandal.
The pension fund scandal really wasn’t that major. The investments the funds were in had performed poorly, but not so badly that they couldn’t recover relatively quickly. But that didn’t matter to the Romney campaign. They made it hurt, they talked with voters about how if they were to try and retire the day after the election, they’d be missing a good chunk of the money they were counting on.
The success of the tactic showed on election day, and Romney’s Republicans took the governor’s mansion.
Contrast that to Utah, which is still in the middle of the biggest political scandal to hit the state in decades (and likely the biggest in our lifetimes). Not a single person in the state hasn’t heard about the major embarrassment and (alleged) criminal activity of Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow. These two were some of the highest ranking Republicans in the entire state. Their dealings encompassed legislators, party officials, congressmen, mayors… there is literally no end in sight to how far this could potentially go. And yet, it seems like you have to pull teeth to hear any Democratic candidates talk about it other than vague “we need to clean up…” phrases. Why not make it hurt?
To be clear, I’m not talking about any one candidate in particular. Nor am I talking about all Democratic candidates in Utah (there are many who are doing a marvelous job). But in general there does seem to be a general lack of willingness to really take up the pitchforks and charge the hill.
It doesn’t even have to be the Swallow/Shurtleff scandal. There have been plenty of others over the past few years. Remember HB477? The bill run by then Representative John Dougall (R) (who we have since elected to the position of State Auditor) that Republicans in the legislature passed in only 3 days, and would have completely stripped both the citizens and the media of our ability to access emails and other communications between legislators and lobbyists? The voters in Utah were so outraged that hundreds and hundreds of Tea Partiers, Liberals, Anti-Choice, Pro-Choice, and LGBTQ community members all stood shoulder to shoulder at the Capitol demanding it be repealed.
How about when Republican Representative Kevin Garn admitted to having a nude encounter with an underage girl in a hot tub, and when he finally dropped out, his colleagues in the legislature gave him a standing ovation when he announced his resignation?
Not your cup of tea? In 2007, Utah voters of all political stripes overwhelmingly voted to override the legislature and repeal school vouchers. Since then, legislators have changed the laws and made it almost impossible to get that kind of repeal initiative on the ballot ever again. And not only that, but Senator Howard Stephenson (R), who championed the voucher idea, has slowly but surely continued to pass privatization measures ever since. And Senator Aaron Osmond (R) just passed a law virtually eliminating all standards for homeschooled kids.
Still not your cup of tea? Remember how Governor Herbert stripped a $1 Billion UDOT contact from the winning bidder and awarded it to the corporation who had donated money to his campaign, and then gave the losing corporation $13 Million in hush money?
Or maybe you like all of them? The Utah legislature works just like Congress: few think it does a good job, but their own Rep and Senator are trying to fix it. Drive home the problems, help your constituents recognize how the incompetence of Utah Republicans is directly harming them and their family’s lives. And have a solution to fix the problem (more than just you’re a good person).
This year in Massachusetts, longtime popular governor Deval Patrick is retiring and the seat is opening up. The Republican on the ticket is Charlie Baker, while the Democrats will pick their candidate in a primary next month. While the Democrats fight it out amongst themselves, Baker is doing his damndest to take every little embarrassing scandal and attach it to each one of his opponents. He knows that if he can bang that drum loud enough, even in blue blue Massachusetts a Republican can win. Utah Democrats should be taking notes.