SALT LAKE CITY — Former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who's holding a rally in Salt Lake City on Friday, is looming large in the current race to lead Utah's Democratic Party.
The nine candidates competing to replace outgoing Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon hope to capitalize on the enthusiasm Sanders generated in the state last year to start chalking up significant wins at the ballot box.
The Vermont senator and progressive independent won nearly 80 percent of the vote in the March 2016 Democratic caucus preference election over the party's eventual presidential nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But last November, Utah Democrats lost every statewide and congressional race, and picked up only a single seat in the Utah Legislature, where Republicans hold a veto-proof supermajority in both the House and Senate.
"It's been a little bit of a roller coaster," Corroon, a former Salt Lake County mayor and 2010 candidate for governor who describes himself as a moderate and a pragmatist, said of his three years as the head of the state Democratic Party.
Now, he said, there's a call from many Utah Democrats for the party to shift further to the left, "part of the Bernie revolution. Many of the Bernie Sanders supporters are now wanting to see a more progressive Democratic Party."
The friction between factions of the party is nothing new, even at the national level. Sanders is being joined on what's being billed as a unity tour by the new Democratic National Committee chairman, Tom Perez, seen as a more moderate leader.
"There's part of the Democratic Party who says we need to be 'true Democrats,' and there's part of the Democratic Party who says we need to appeal to moderates and independents in Utah" to win elections, Corroon said.
Richard Davis, a BYU political science professor and columnist for the Deseret News who ran against Corroon for party chairman in 2014, said Democrats risk becoming more unpalatable to Utah's largely conservative voters.
"When party leadership is to the left, it makes it difficult to send a message the party is broad-based," Davis said.
Instead, what voters will hear will be "more aggressive, I would say. More in your face," he said.
And that "doesn't tend to wear well with Utah voters. They like people they're comfortable with. The party chair is an important lynchpin in creating that comfort," the former Utah County Democratic Party chairman said.
Davis said he decided against another run for the top spot with the state party after seeing moderate Democrats running for U.S. Senate and governor defeated in the primary by candidates who went on to lose big in the general election.
But others say the party has to take advantage of the newfound interest in politics generated by Sanders, who helped attract a record 80,000 Utahns to the March 2016 caucus meetings, including some 18,000 newly registered voters.
President Donald Trump's lagging popularity is also a factor. Trump won Utah, a state that hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, with just 45.5 percent of the vote last November, his lowest margin of victory.
"I think a lot people are motivated right now by the political climate," said Julianne Waters, a Democratic state party chair candidate. "What you're seeing is some very passionate people who feel like they can make a difference."
Waters, along with environmental activist Tim DeChristopher, was part of the 2010 effort to unseat the last Democrat to represent Utah in Congress, Jim Matheson, in favor of a more liberal candidate.
Matheson was forced into a primary against a retired high school history teacher, Claudia Wright. He won what was his first and last primary election, and continued to be re-elected until stepping down in 2014 after seven terms in Congress.
"What we were attempting to do is bring the party back to its roots," Waters said. "We thought that even a Republican would not be as bad as he was because he was very damaging to the image of Democrats. He was Republican light."
The state party's drift away from progressive values has been gradual, she said, and "not any one person's fault." But there are Democrats who recognize that those values need to be embraced, Waters said.
"When you say change, people get really scared," she said. "But if you don't change something, you're going to get the same results."
Another candidate for state party chairman, Rob Miller, said Democrats outside of Salt Lake County are looking for practical help and are "not so much worried about progressive or conservative issues."
Miller, who previously served as party vice chairman under union leader Wayne Holland, said he sees himself as "very progressive in my thinking and my attitude, but I am also a believer candidates should run as who they are."
He credited Sanders with bringing "a lot of people out in Utah. I don't know that they looked at it as so much progressive as a return to the working class" and issues important to families, such as better wages and schools.
What doesn't work with Utah voters are "divisive things," Miller said, citing the fundraiser held by 2016 Democratic candidate for governor Mike Weinholtz at “Saturday's Voyeur,” a local musical mocking Utah culture. Weinholtz later apologized.
"Is that progressive or is that a slap in the face of the voters of Utah?" Miller asked, calling for the party to return to "common-sense leadership" that's more in touch with voters.
Nadia Bowman, the first candidate to jump in the chairman's race, said the party "is in a bit of a predicament."
"We need to be realistic. Not everyone is going to be as progressive as some of the party insiders or other candidates would like," Bowman said.
She declined to say who she supported for president before Clinton won the nomination, noting that "some would say I'm more progressive, and some would say I'm more mainstream. I would say I'm a progressive, but I live in Utah."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the state Democratic Party has to be willing to work with candidates across the political spectrum.
The enthusiasm of Sanders' supporters can give the party a boost, Burbank said, but his positions — which include free higher education, universal health care and a $15 per hour minimum wage — can't be used as a litmus test for Utah Democrats.42 comments on this story
"If it becomes, 'Oh, you've got to be progressive and hold these views or we're not interested in working with you,' that's going to be a losing strategy," Burbank said. "There's no question about that."
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Candidates for Utah Democratic Party chairman
To be decided by party delegates at June 17 state convention:
Archie A. Williams III
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Bernie Sanders rally
When: Friday; doors open at 10:30 a.m.
Where: The Rail Event Center, 235 N. 500 West, Salt Lake City
Cost: Free, but admission is first come, first served; RSVP at fightbacktour.com