Utah Republicans could get blindsided by more ballot propositions

Photo by Keith Bacongco
By Jesse Harris

The recent midterm elections had significant turnout in Utah. In interview after interview, it became obvious that ballot questions were a strong motivator for voters to get out to the polls. Proposition 2, which would legalize medical use of marijuana, was often cited as a top draw. Combined with left-leaning issues such as Medicaid expansion and an independent redistricting commission, all appearances are that this was a large factor in Democratic turnout. That helped Democrats in several legislative districts as well as Ben McAdams in CD4. Given the large turnout change for relatively little spending, is this going to be a campaign tactic going forward?

As far as expenditures go, the propositions were very cost-effective. Spending in support of Propositions 2, 3, and 4 combined was around $5.5M. Picking up a Congressional seat, four or so legislative seats, and two or three large public policy changes is a pretty good return on that investment. Spending the money directly on races may have picked up those seats, but it would not have been likely to secure those public policy changes. Most of that money raised came from out-of-state sources. It would have been a lot less likely that it was spent directly on campaigns rather than on specific issues. This presents an opportunity for the Utah Democratic Party to make electoral gains without direct campaign spending. You can identify an issue with majority appeal, find a PAC to fund it, and piggyback your candidates on the increased turnout.

This presents a conundrum for the Utah Republican Party. When you have supermajorities and can pass whatever laws you want, there’s little reason to put something on the ballot for voters to sign off on. The GOP is in such organizational disarray that they provided little support for their nominees. It makes no sense for them to operate like a PIC against any particular ballot initiative. This creates a ballot disadvantage that’s extremely hard to counter.

I’m pretty certain that the Utah Democratic Party is looking at how they can start leveraging out of state money this way for electoral gains. If the Utah Republican Party and county parties don’t clean up their act soon so that they can fundraise and support party nominees, they may find Salt Lake County turning permanently blue, more purple areas around the state, and no cohesive strategy to use to deal with it.

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