Could Utah turn from a solid red state to purple? Newly-elected Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant thinks demographic changes in the Beehive State could make that happen within a decade.
Merchant joins UtahPolicy.com managing editor Bryan Schott to discuss the challenges and opportunities he sees for Utah's minority party in the age of Donald Trump.
Excerpts from our conversation (lightly edited for clarity and grammar):
What are some of the challenges you see for the Democratic party in Utah and what are some of the opportunities?
We’re kind of at a point right now where the party is in a rebuilding mode. We have had some debt issues that we’re working on and making quite a bit of progress on.
We really have a lack of direction right now.
When I came in, the party had approximately $75,000 in debt with about another $20-25,000 outstanding accounts payable. We’ve paid down a decent chunk of that.
We have a belief that it’s important that we don’t have a fat cat come in and just wipe all of that out. We want to make sure we stay a grassroots organization, that we have a lot of supporters at high levels and low levels and we work with everyone to make the party better.
How hard is it to fundraise in a state where you are outnumbered by Republicans five to one?
The fundraising comes down to being able to provide people with a sense of the direction that you’re going. I look at fundraising the way that I would look at any investment I make, whether that’s in a cell phone or a car or stock or whatever. You want to believe in the thing that you’re buying.
I was at a meeting a couple of weeks ago and I met the chair of the Hawaiian Democratic Party, and we had a lot of very similar issues with our parties, including fundraising. Hawaii the exact opposite of where we are. They’ve got a very strong Democratic Party and a lot of people that identify as Democrats, yet they still have some of the similar issues.
It’s really about creating a message that people believe in. Frankly, with what’s going on with Donald Trump, the reasonability that people see in Democrats that are in local elected office, people are starting to see that.
Our polling has shown Donald Trump is not popular in this state, which is a continuation from the 2016 election. Trump carried the state with only 45 of the vote. He’s underwater in his approval rating and has never crested above 50%. Can Trump be an effective election issue for Democrats in Utah?
The reality is there’s not a whole lot that I feel like I have to do with Donald Trump. Whether we’re talking about essentially stealing $54 million from Hill Air Force Base or using nuclear bombs to try and stop hurricanes…I could go on and on about all of the things he’s done. In my mind, he’s his own worst enemy.
I think what people in Utah really want to see is a positive message, which is not coming out of the White House right now. Frankly, we have Republican legislators throughout the country who haven’t bothered to hold President Trump accountable for the erratic behavior and for doing the things that a vast majority of Americans don’t want to be happening.
Democrats made progress in 2018, picking up a number of seats on Capitol Hill and a seat in Congress. Looking forward to 2020, where are some places where you believe you can make gains?
I think we have opportunities all over the state. In Salt Lake County we had a number of really close races that we lost. I think all of those races that we could probably look at picking up in 2020. We’ve got a great set of people that are interested in running for those seats, but they’re not quire ready to announce yet. We’ve got opportunities up in Weber County. We’ve got opportunities in Summit County.
I’ve been hearing Weber County as a place Democrats could make gains for years. I’ve heard Washington County for years as well. What’s different now, because we’ve been hearing that refrain for years?
That’s fair. But the reality is, people are starting to get more and more tired with the antics and the lack of anything happening on Capitol Hill and more tired with the antics of Donald Trump and they’re ready for a change. I think that bleeds down into local politics.
When you look at a legislature that’s seriously considering attacking taxation that goes specifically to education. They changed Proposition 2 and Proposition 3 after the people voted for it. I think we can all agree that Proposition 4 is next on the chopping block. I think people are ready to see some real change.
It’s one thing for our Republican legislators to talk about how the power lies in the hands of the people and the people have a voice. But, when the people ask for something to happen, they turn around and do the exact opposite or make changes because they know better than we do.
Is that a potent campaign issue for you? There’s a lot of anger over Prop. 2 and Prop. 3 and, as we’ve reported, Prop. 4 is likely headed for some changes. Can you turn that anger into votes for Democrats in an overwhelmingly Republican state?
You’ve hit the nail on the head. Democrats are constantly asking how do we get to that final step? I think we have seen the political pendulum swinging so far to the right that we’ve finally gotten to a point where people are ready to start looking at other options. As we see the demographic changes happening in Utah, it gives Democrats an opportunity. But, demographic changes don’t necessarily lead to Democratic changes.
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