BY FROMA HARROP
SALT LAKE CITY – American flags and lush spring grass lined the long drive of a Mormon meetinghouse here in the desert capital of Utah. Television trucks parking outside. Utahans were gathering last week for the funeral of Bill Orton, a Democrat who had represented an especially conservative congressional district in this most Republican state for three terms.
Orton’s unlikely career included a first run in 1990 as a middle-age bachelor in a state where early marriage and big Mormon families are the norm. The Republican Party used an ad showing its candidate surrounded by a large clan over the words “Karl Snow and his family” next to a photo of the singleton Orton over the caption “Bill Orton and his family.”
But the voters did not take kindly to that perceived low blow. The attack ads actually contributed to Orton’s win. Orton subsequently married and started a family, adding another tragic note to his death at 60 in an all-terrain-vehicle accident.
Such stories defy the notion that American voters fit into neat partisan-designed packages. The brawlers may hunt political enemies on cable and blogs, but out in the country, voters deal with their elected officials on a more personal level. Party labels matter less, which is why you find popular Republicans in Maine and admired Democrats in Utah.
The Democrats’ sweeping national victories in 2006 and 2008 are being felt here, too. Democrat Jim Matheson, a favorite Republican target, now sits more comfortably in his 2nd Congressional District seat. Like Orton before him, this son of a former Utah governor is no Ted Kennedy liberal. Staunchly “pro-life,” Matheson has one of the most conservative records among House Democrats, though he did vote against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and making the Bush tax cuts permanent.
Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., meanwhile, plays the unabashed moderate as he positions himself for a possible presidential run in 2012. Huntsman just threw his support behind civil unions for gay couples, a move that apparently startled national pundits more than the local people. The governor’s high approval numbers barely rippled as a result.
Huntsman pushed through an easing of the Mormon-prescribed restrictions on drinking. And he was the second Republican governor, after California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, to sign onto the Western Climate Initiative. The group was established in 2007 to combat global warming.
As Huntsman sees it, the Republican worldview was upended in the last election. “It’s like the world began in November,” he has said.
How did Orton get elected at a time when congressional Republicans were riding high and a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, was widely disliked in Utah? He did it through a highly engaging personality and an unpolarizing style, wrote Utah Democratic activist Douglas Holm in The Salt Lake Tribune. “People loved him.”
Demographics also helped. Orton’s wins in the early ’90s were made possible by older voters who grew up at a time when Democrats were more competitive. “My experience going door to door for candidates is that older conservatives tend to split their votes for Democrats more often than young conservatives,” Holm explained.
Unfortunately for Orton, the district was getting larger and younger. That, and Clinton’s surprise creation of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, did him in. His constituents wanted mining jobs on the land.
Given the success of Orton, Matheson and the Republican moderate Huntsman, can we say that the national media typecast Utah as more relentlessly conservative than it really is? Yes, and liberal-state voters get stereotyped, as well. Politics are a lot more complicated on the ground than over the airwaves.
– Froma Harrop’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer