THE BLOG

Utah Democrats Nominate Candidate Slate

04/24/2012 06:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2012

Oh Liberals, my Liberals. Where art thou Good Liberals? Aye, in Utah. In Utah?

Friday and Saturday night, Utah Democrats caucused to elect candidates in statewide races, from committeemen and women to a Governor and a U.S. Senator.

The convention attracted delegates and political junkies from across the state. Friday night's first annual Taylor and Mayne awards dinner sold out. Saturday's stump speeches attracted standing-room only crowds in a room that easily fit a couple thousand. Several candidates remarked that turnout was as high as they'd ever seen it.

It was, indeed, an energetic weekend for Democrats, if there ever was one. And the candidates who estimated sky-high attendance were spot on. According to Party Chairman Jim Debakis, the 2012 convention broke the all-time attendance record.

U.S. Representative Jim Matheson was there both days, schmoozing although running unopposed. Friday afternoon at a campaign management training session, Matheson's communication director spoke to the importance of messaging in a state like Utah, where the law of numbers forces Democratic candidates to win over moderate Republican voters.

Matheson's message this year is something along the lines of "advocating for Utah values." Be assured, it's carefully crafted for the moderate Right. An attendee at the training session bluntly challenged Matheson's communications director on this point, saying Matheson's "Utah values" theme is code for a set of beliefs she doesn't believe in. Matheson's emphasis on broadening the tax base, she continued, is just another a cute euphemism for something else she, as a true Democratic, has qualms about: raising taxes on the poorest of the poor, who do not make enough to file federal taxes.

Is alienating the Democratic base in order to win conservative votes, on the grounds that Democrats will vote for him anyway, the sort of campaign Matheson really wants to run? Matheson's director said of course not. Whether the message is something to be suspicious of, however, is up for debate.

But like it or not-and let me tell you, a lot of us really don't like it-Democrats will bite the bullet and vote for Matheson in November, if we are to put Party over personal ideology, as we probably should, and be good Dems. The logic goes: even if Matheson is a D.I.N.O, it's better to have him on our side some of the time than against us all the time.

It's not uncommon in Utah to see Democratic candidates forego any indication that they're Democrats on campaign literature. It's a bold move, believe it or not, to put a donkey on yard signs here. The fear, or perhaps the well-documented fact, is that the biggest obstacle for a Democrat is the mere presence of a 'D' after his name.

Yet, if you're affiliated with the Democratic party in the slightest, said Matheson's communications director, Republicans will make it known loudly and clearly that you are a Democrat, so it's wiser to own it than to eschew it. At least then you'll have your pride and self-respect.

At Friday's awards dinner there was a surreal moment for, I think, everyone in attendance. An Imam, who leads prayer in a mosque, was invited to bless the food. His words were poignant if not cathartic: in a pluralistic society such as ours, we must not only accept that people hold different and competing comprehensive worldviews, but that theirs and ours are likewise reasonable and deserving of dignity and respect.

The Democratic Party, he said, has embraced the Muslim community when few others dared to do so. Instead of vilifying Islam on the whole, Democrats have taken to Muslims and their faith with open arms, hearts and caucuses, proving the Party's commitment to reasonable pluralism, diversity and equality.

Roughly one third of delegates were first-timers at this year's convention.

At the Republican convention, Sen. Orrin Hatch found himself placed into his first primary in his 36-year Senate career. Hatch came up just shy of the 60-percent of the convention vote needed to avoid a primary, where he will face off against former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist on June 26.

Meanwhile Scott Howell, the former Democratic minority leader in the State Senate and director of public policy for IBM, won the Democratic nomination for U.S Senate outright, with 63 percent of the vote.

If there were ever a chance for Utah Democrats to oust a sitting Republican Senator, 2012 may be it. Howell's young volunteer base, high-octane campaign, moderate political views and past work in improving public education, coupled with the pervasive sentiment, even among Republicans, that Hatch has overstayed his welcome in Congress gives Howell a shot, albeit still a fairly long one, at beating Hatch.

A win for Howell would be a huge boost for Democrats, who risk losing control of the Senate in a year where Democratic Senators are up for reelection in 23 Senate seats while their Republican counterparts are on the ballot in just 10.