Voter Confusion Could Work to Stewart’s Advantage in 2nd Congressional Race
It’s pop quiz time. Do you know what congressional district you’re in? If the answer is no, you’re not alone. Utah’s largest and possibly most misunderstood district is the second.
I’m at a playground in Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City, looking for potential voters. I chose this park because it’s in the Second Congressional District, but it’s right on the edge. Just on the other side of Interstate 80 is Utah's Fourth District. There seems to be some confusion about this.
“Do you know what district you’re in in terms of Congress?” I asked one man.
“I don’t,” he replied.
To another woman, I said, “It sounds like you’re not quite sure what district you’re in.”
“True,” she said with a laugh. Then she turned to her friends. “Do you guys know? No, I don’t know what district I’m in.”
“Do you know who your congressman is?” I asked a man.
“I would remember him if you said their names, I think,” he said.
“Is that one? No, I have no idea,” he laughed.
I talked to both Republicans and Democrats, equally confused. But maybe I just caught a few people off guard. I checked in with Tim Chambless, an Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Utah. Turns out, he’s encountered the same thing.
“I have heard this from a number of friends and colleagues that they don’t know who they’re voting for, they don’t know whose district they’re in,” Chambless says. “In fact, I can tell you that when I ask this question of my University of Utah students in my large political science classes, very few can name their house member.”
But Chambless says it’s understandable that citizens are confused in Utah. The districts were redrawn by state lawmakers in 2011 when updated census numbers gave Utah an additional representative in Congress. To make matters more confusing, Democratic Congressman Jim Matheson who once represented the old Second District, ran in the new Fourth District against Republican Mia Love in the 2012 election. As a result, the Fourth District race overshadowed the Second in terms of money spent and attention paid. Even current Second District Congressman Chris Stewart jokes about it.
Stewarts says, “Everyone in the state expected to go to the voting booth and vote for either Mia or Jim, and they’d look at the ballot card and go who is Chris Stewart?”
But Stewart, an author, businessman, and former air force pilot, says people are more aware of him now that he has a track record in Congress. And he says he tries to be available and accessible to his constituents.
“Instead of asking who is Chris, I want them to say oh yeah, Chris was here last week,” Stewart says.
But Chambless says there is still confusion among voters, and that leads to suppression of political engagement. He says about a third of Utah voters are expected to participate in the election, and a third of them are expected to vote straight party line. So Stewart has a pretty powerful advantage over his Democratic challenger Luz Robles.
“The District was designed so that 62 percent of voters typically will vote Republican,” Chambless says. “Chris Stewart is Republican, so that’s to his advantage. He’s also the incumbent; he also has more money to spend for his re-election.”
Luz Robles says gerrymandering is responsible. She’s currently a Senator in the state legislature and she was there when the districts were redrawn. Robles says districts should be created by an independent commission rather than by those in power.
“That’s when people feel that their vote doesn’t count,” Robles says. “That is a real issue in Utah. We’re not going to have balance in Utah until we change our redistricting process.”
Robles says the only way she has any chance of winning is if more people vote. She estimates she needs to mobilize an additional 27,000 voters to overcome the Republican majority. As a Latina herself, if she can get immigrants to the polls – that could give her a boost. On immigration policy, Robles is highly critical of Congress for not passing comprehensive reform. The Robles campaign strategy is to focus on canvassing and encouraging people to vote by mail.
“For us, it’s been trying to talk to the groups that hardly ever participate, those are your 18-25, and ethnic minority groups, and just trying to get them more energized in this election cycle,” Robles.
Both candidates say it’s challenging to reach voters in a district so massive and diverse, from Salt Lake City to the mostly rural western and southern portions of Utah. And the issues that matter to voters are different depending on where you are and who you talk to. Stewart says the main issue voters are talking to him about now is national security. He’s in favor of an aggressive military strategy in the Middle East, which he says President Obama has only recently adopted.
“When the President’s doing the right things, I’m going to tell people he’s doing the right things,” Stewarts says. “We would hope if he’s making mistakes as I think he has in the past, that we would be able to point you know in conversations that out as well, but once he’s engaged in these operations, I think we should support him on that.”
Stewart says voters also care about the issues he campaigned on two years ago, including government spending and debt. Robles, who works at Zions Bank, says the average American is concerned about economic issues that affect their lives like jobs, student loans, the price of gas, social security and healthcare.
“I do feel our current representation is a little bit disconnected with the working class, and what their needs are,” Robles says. “I feel like I could be more in tune with that because I’m part of that community, it’s who I am.”
Robles underscores the point when she talks about the fact that she’s running for office while pregnant.
“This is just a condition that will last a couple months, and then it’s the next thing. You know, you’re a working parent, like most Utahns are working parents.”
Also running in the race is Shaun McCausland with the Constitution Party and independent candidates Wayne Hill and Bill Barron.
“Can everybody hear us OK?” Barron asks as he speaks into a microphone. He’s trying to raise awareness about the single issue of climate change. He rode his bicycle across the entire district from Salt Lake City to St George. Barron launched the ride at Tracy Aviary, with a small but enthusiastic crowd of supporters.
“I’m a carpenter and a father, a deeply concerned citizen, and I feel like I need to engage in politics, because I feel like it’s an opportunity to create change that’s urgently needed,” Barron says.
“Thank you, Bill!” a supporter yells, and the crowd applauds as Barron heads off on his bike.
The voters of the Second District will have their voice heard on November 4th. That is, if they show up to vote.