By all rights, Utah’s 4th Congressional District should have been an easy victory for any Republican candidate. The partisan lean ranges from R+13 to R+20 depending on who you talk to. Since its creation, however, Republicans have had a hard time showing numbers anywhere near that. Jim Matheson won by a few hundred votes based on his existing popularity in CD2, having switched to run in CD4 after redistricting. Mia Love won against Doug Owens, a rather weak and feckless Democrat who felt more like their typical sacrificial lamb, by barely over 3 points in 2014. The re-match between her and Owens in 2016 put her 12 points ahead despite the advantages of incumbency, still underperforming the partisan lean. What’s going on to cause such drastically poor performance?
Republicans overall have had to fight against Trump being a drag on their poll numbers. That said, Love has not been particularly cozy with Trump. While Rep. Chris Stewart in CD2 has been more-or-less all-in on the Trump Train (and with sagging numbers to prove it), Love has been more open to criticizing the president on immigration, tariffs, and his tone. You would think this would provide a buffer against collateral damage from the President, yet many didn’t expect electoral performance any better than R+5. These sagging numbers predate Trump by a couple election cycles.
It also doesn’t help that the Love campaign has done everything wrong. Her opponent, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, is well-known for being likable, competent, and barely left of center. In a blue state, he could probably pass for a Republican. But the attack ads have been simply other-worldly. Remember when Morgan Philpot ran against Jim Matheson and plastered up “Matheson = Pelosi” signs all over? Someone thought that losing strategy would be a winner again. Same with throwing out the name of every prominent national Democrat as being a functional equivalent. Despite McAdams’ long history of being a political moderate, opponents also continually claimed he’s secretly a far-left liberal. With a large chunk of CD4 sitting in Salt Lake County where voters have had first-hand experience with his governing style, the charges just don’t stick.
The immense partisan lean doesn’t seem to translate into securing roughly that percentage of independents. CD4 is a weird district. It’s heavily Republican, but well-educated, suburban, and middle class. When Evan McMullin ran his independent presidential campaign centered on being anti-Trump, he did very well there. Voters aren’t reliably Republican like they might be in other districts. A smarter campaign would recognize this and adjust their tactics accordingly. Apparently, that smarter campaign is run by the McAdams team who enjoyed a pretty resounding victory last night.
It would be very easy to leave all the blame at the feet of what appears to be the dumbest campaign team ever (seriously, nice work, Dave Hansen), but there needs to be plenty of darts flung at party leadership as well. Where was the Utah Republican Party in all this fray? Why were there few efforts to engage Republicans in the district to canvass in this vulnerable seat? Why were Republicans from other districts not engaged to canvas the district or phone bank? Why does it seem like the county parties in that district were similarly disengaged from the race?
After many years of doing little beyond arguing over Roberts Rules and tilting at the windmill that is SB54, the Republican Party, from the state to every single one of the counties, has forgotten that its chief and primary duty is to… elect Republicans. Unfortunately, we have a dearth of competent leadership as the party has morphed from being about supporting and electing the party nominees to only supporting and electing those nominees a certain segment of the party cares for. It has become so detached from the party membership that it functionally operates as a PAC for whoever was the loudest and most obnoxious at chasing others out. This has destroyed the party’s ability to fundraise in order to support candidates in vulnerable districts and races. It shows in the four legislative seats that flipped to D last night.
To this end, there’s really only one way to right the ship: fire everyone. Fire every state and county executive officer. Pull all-new precinct chairs. A full refresh of delegates. Burn everything to ashes and start over. This may sound extreme, but losing so badly in a district that should have been a complete cakewalk is inexcusable. The dysfunction that has to lead the GOP to a point where it’s possible is so systemic that none of the existing people should stick around.