Utah County democrats deliberate on Senate options ahead of convention
Harrison Epstein, Daily Herald
To back, or not to back. That’s the question. On Saturday, Democrats from across Utah will converge on Cottonwood High School in Murray for the state convention. In addition to determining the party platform and hearing from candidates for party office, state delegates will be decide on their nominee for U.S. Senate — or if there will even be one.
Kael Weston is the only candidate seeking the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat, but his place on the ballot is not a foregone conclusion. Months prior to Weston announcing his candidacy, former CIA officer Evan McMullin announced he would compete for the seat as an independent.
This leaves the state delegates with a choice to make. They can either support Weston and have his place secured on the general election ballot in November or decide to support no candidate and leave McMullin as the lone opposition to the Republican nominee, presumed to be incumbent Sen. Mike Lee.
It’s a situation few, if any, have experienced before and state delegates have spent time agonizing over the decision to be made. For Jay Allen, a Mapleton resident and state delegate, the decision came down to a mix of personal history and an estimation of independent voters in the state.
“I have been voting for democratic candidates in the state of Utah for the last 30 years and watching them lose for the most part, tragically, particularly for statewide races,” Allen said. “I don’t think Republicans would be prepared to vote for a democratic candidate this year.”
Isaac Hale, Daily Herald file photo
He added that McMullin has wide name recognition after his 2016 presidential campaign, also as an independent, and has proven himself to be reasonable and humane.
It wasn’t an easy decision for Allen. He read Weston’s book while researching the candidate and said he would support him in a race against Sen. Mitt Romney or former Sen. Bob Bennett if that were the case, but with Lee’s name being, most likely, on the ballot the “stakes are too high.”
Those high stakes, though, were not lost on delegates who will be backing a Weston nomination, including Utah County Democratic Party Vice Chair Ethan Bassett.
He has opted to support Weston in part because of his policies.
“He has exactly the kind of platform that I want to see for the Utah Democratic Party, specifically,” Bassett said. Saying that it wasn’t an easy decision, Bassett believes the best-case scenario has Weston on the ticket in a three-person race. Democrats have received slightly over one-third of the vote in recent statewide elections.
Bassett added that while McMullin has policy positions that could be favorable to Democratic voters, a swing to the right wouldn’t be a surprise if there is no Democrat on the ballot in November.
“It’s easy for him to take some of those stances in rooms full of Democrats,” he said.
In an April 5 interview with the Daily Herald, Weston said he is running on issues, everything from the foundations of democracy to at-home issues like water and the experiences of “downwinders” in the state — people still dealing with the effects of nuclear testing in Utah and Nevada. But to advocate for those issues and many more, he would need to be on the ballot.
“Are we really going to be saying at convention day, if they take me off the ballot, that we don’t trust our neighbors who voted democratic two years ago? Or we’re forcing their hand,” Weston said.
He added that the move would have an effect on Democrats running for every office down the ballot.
“I think it affects everyone down ballot. I’m worried about people that won’t show up and vote because they will feel like they’ve been gamed, they’ve been played,” Weston said.
Part of the issue for Weston is that taking him off the ballot would be done at the convention, a decision made my political die-hards who have the time to spend their Saturday in a high school gym. He’s told voters that if it were a decision made by all of the state’s Democrats to not have him on the ticket, rather than a select few, he would accept it.
Daniel Friend, a delegate and state house candidate, said he made his decision after reflecting on American history — specifically the election of 1800. That year, a Federalist-controlled Congress was able to choose the president between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Alexander Hamilton backed Jefferson because he was a man of principle, and Friend sees himself supporting McMullin against Lee for the same reason.
“I know that he is actually going to defend our democracy,” Friend said. “When faced with the choice of evils, take the least.”
He likes and respects both candidates but sees the race as a must-win. Eventually, he sat down and asked himself a question — what is the wisest way to go in order to beat Lee? In the end, he felt that supporting McMullin was the right path, even if he disagrees with the independent on some policy positions.
“I would much rather have half of what I want from a Sen. McMullin than none of what I want from a Sen. Lee,” Friend said.
For the state delegates supporting both the “no candidate” path and those backing Weston, the goal is shared — beating Lee.
Lee has come under fire in recent days for text messages sent to former President Donald Trump in the wake of the 2020 election revealing he knew of the president’s plan to overturn the results. Not only did he know of the plan, Lee suggested that states send alternate slates of delegates to vote in the Electoral College.
In February, Lee was the lone senator holding up the Amache National Historic Site Act, which gave the designation to a former internment camp in rural Colorado and his protest of a vaccine mandate nearly forced a government shutdown last December.
“We need to get Mike Lee out of that office and get someone reasonable and humane in,” Allen said.
While Lee looms over the process for Democrats as an incumbent with millions of dollars in the bank and national notoriety, Weston has persisted that selecting a candidate can’t be entirely about the opposition party, but about the voters.
“This isn’t just about Mike Lee, because I believe Evan’s whole strategy is entirely dependent on Mike Lee being on the ballot; mine is not,” Weston said.
On the other side of Salt Lake, and also on Saturday, Republican delegates will decide whether they want to stick with Lee or back one of the challengers through the convention. Regardless, Lee, Becky Edwards and Ally Isom have each garnered enough signatures on petitions to have a place on the primary ballot.
The democratic convention begins at 8 a.m. Saturday at Cottonwood High School.