Going local, Utah Democrats may not run candidates in some congressional races

SALT LAKE CITY -- Republican congressman John Curtis, elected to fill the vacancy left when Jason Chaffetz quit, has already filed for re-election to represent Utah's 3rd District.

But so far, no Democrat has jumped in to challenge him.

Provo Mayor John Curtis declares victory in the GOP primary to replace Jason Chaffetz on August 15, 2017. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Rep. Curtis' last opponent, Kathie Allen, has apparently decided against a rematch and instead filed to run for a state senate seat.

In an interview Friday with FOX 13, Utah Democratic Party Executive Director Alex Cragun said it was possible no one jumps into that race. If they don't, he indicated, it was also OK with him.

"If you’re interested, go ahead and apply!" Cragun said, looking into FOX 13's camera. "We’re looking, but I mean, right now my focus is finding people that want to run in Provo for state House instead."

It's a shift in focus for a party that has previously put a lot of focus on trying to win congressional seats that went to Republicans. In the 2016 election, where Democrats took a beating nationwide, Utah was one of a few states where Democrats made gains in local races.

Merchandise supporting Bernie Sanders running in 2020 is sold outside a Democratic party rally in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 21, 2017. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

The Utah Democratic Party saw in 2016 a wave of younger people getting involved, inspired by the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Cragun said he wanted to channel support into more localized races and build a deeper bench of candidates.

"I'm excited to see what 2018 brings in terms of congressional races for Utah," Cragun said. "But if we’re going to see Utah turn more purple or more balanced, we need to be looking at races in the state House, in the state Senate, the city council, mayor's race, boards, commissions, everything down."

It's not to say Democrats are out of the 2018 congressional races. Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams is seen as a significant challenger to Republican incumbent Congresswoman Mia Love. County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson and Mitchell Vice have already started campaigning for Sen. Orrin Hatch's soon-to-be open seat. Shireen Ghorbani filed to challenge Rep. Chris Stewart in Utah's 2nd Congressional District, and former senate candidate Misty Snow has said she intends to run for that seat as well.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg in an interview with FOX 13's Ben Winslow. (Image by Eric Weseman, FOX 13 News)

On Friday, the Utah Democratic Party brought in South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg to headline a fundraiser. Considered a rising party star (whose name has been floated as a possible 2020 presidential candidate), he said Democrats should compete in all races, but also realize the importance of state and local seats.

"We need to figure out how to be a broad-based party. One that’s competing everywhere including so-called red states," Buttigieg told FOX 13.

Buttigieg acknowledged the idea is a page from the playbook of the opposing party.

"Conservatives have patiently and cleverly built majorities from school boards to state houses with a strategy of patience that started in the '70s and '80s. We need to learn the same thing and not just think one cycle at a time," he said.

Cragun said winning congressional seats in Utah is significant, but he wants to see more Democrats elected in local districts.

"I've got to stay focused on that ball and that long term vision of ending a super-minority, and making it a working minority," he said.