SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Democratic presidential candidates like to boast about their ability to lure away disaffected Republican voters. If there’s a place to test their skills, it’s Utah.
The deep red state is a bastion of conservative resistance to President Donald Trump. While the president has conquered virtually every other corner of the GOP landscape, his powers just don’t work as well here.
The state’s polite conservatism clashes hard with Trump’s take-no-prisoners approach. Its openly religious electorate bristles at Trump’s immigration policies, limits on refugee resettlement and Twitter attacks on civil servants. He won the state — but without a majority. Voters sent Trump critic Mitt Romney to the Senate, and the national wave of GOP anger over his a vote to oust the president from office was tempered by voices of support in Utah.
Now Democratic presidential candidates are making a play to capitalize on that.
Utah is “not a huge delegate win, but it represents who is a candidate that can realistically peel off some Republican or moderate or independently minded voters to build a coalition,” said Taylor West, an executive in the mountain town of Heber City.
West is a Republican who supports Pete Buttigieg. While he disagrees with the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor on issues like abortion and increasing the minimum wage, he supports his drive to reduce the national debt, which has increased under Trump, and limit executive overreach.
West helped his former Harvard classmate court Republican voters this week with an event explaining how to vote in the state's open Democratic primary, which allows any voter to participate regardless of party affiliation. The event attracted more than 60 people interested in Buttigieg, who makes a point of discussing his religious faith on the campaign trail.
Peeling off large swaths of Republicans won’t be easy: Trump does have a base of support in Utah, and a strong economy paired with the party’s deep social roots in the state will likely insulate him from large-scale GOP defections, said Chris Karpowitz, a political science associate professor at Brigham Young University.
Still, there are some early indications that enthusiasm is running high: The number of registered Democrats in Salt Lake County, the state's most populous, has increased 13% since September. That brings them to about 22% of voters, compared with 35% for Republicans. Most of the rest of the county's voters are unaffiliated.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders won big in Utah in 2016 and will be welcomed as a front-runner when he appears in the state Monday, the day before the series of March 3 Democratic primaries known as Super Tuesday.
That hasn’t stopped another moderate Democratic candidate, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, from holding rallies twice in Utah. While his campaign hasn't directly targeted GOP voters, a strong finish from a third-party candidate in 2016 shows Utah voters are looking for an alternative, said state director Lauren Littlefield.
“Bloomberg can absolutely be that candidate,” she said.
Bloomberg’s pitch that he’s got the financing and the New York-bred sharp elbows to take on Trump resonated with stay-at-home mother Emily Dastrup, 42, from the suburban community of Kaysville.
She’s a Republican but voting Democrat in the primary. A devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Dastrup is hoping a moderate wins the nomination since she’s deeply skeptical about socialism.
“I’m trying hard to find a candidate to vote for. I believe in voting very much, and I really believe in being a good example for my children,” she said. “I’m tired of rabid ideology and holding that up as something to be proud of.”
Faith can cut both ways for Democrats campaigning Utah: While distaste for Trump is often rooted in Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sensibilities, most members are conservative on issues like abortion.
That's a defining issue for Alicia Alba, 40, of Lindon, south of Salt Lake City. She’d voted for almost every Republican she could — until the 2016 presidential race.
“I have been against Trump from the very first time he came down that escalator,” she said. This year, she considered Bill Weld, Trump’s long-shot GOP rival, but ultimately decided she wanted to have more of a say about who would become the president’s Democratic opponent.
Finally, she discovered that Amy Klobuchar had said she supports a “big tent” Democratic party that includes abortion opponents. Alba believes making abortion obsolete means supporting women and families with programs at every stage of life, something she doesn't hear much talk about from Republican candidates.
“I reached out to my county clerk and asked them to send me a Democratic primary ballot for the first time in my life,” she said. If Klobuchar doesn't win the nomination, though, she's not sure she can vote for the nominee.
“The choice between Republicans and Democrats right now is, if you want to protect people before they’re born or after they’re born,” she said. “And that’s a pretty rotten choice.”