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Voter turnout will make or break the Rep. Phil Lyman vs. Davina Smith race

On the left, current House District 69 Republican Rep. Phil Lyman, and his challenger, Davina Smith.
courtesy Utah Legislature; Davina Smith campaign
On the left, current House District 69 Republican Rep. Phil Lyman, and his challenger, Davina Smith.

Davina Smith hopes to make Utah history in the November midterm elections by becoming the first Indigenous woman elected to the state legislature. The Diné (Navajo) Democrat, who is a member of KUER’s Advisory Board, is running against Republican incumbent Rep. Phil Lyman for the House District 69 seat.

It’s hard to beat an incumbent though, said Morgan Lyon Cotti, the associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics. Especially in an area that is polarized by certain issues, like the use of public lands. But Lyon Cotti noted the demographic makeup of the district could land Smith in the legislature if the right people show up to the polls.

“I think this is a race that will be completely determined by turnout,” she said. “If you can motivate the right voters to turn out, we might see that seat flip.”

The new District 69 drawn by the Utah Legislative Redistricting Committee in 2021 covers a large swath of southern and rural Utah. It covers six counties and hot spot tourist areas like Kanab, Torrey and Moab. It encompasses four out of five national parks and includes Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments.

While parts of the area are historically conservative, the new map shifts the demographics of the district. It now has the largest Native American population of any district in the state at 19%, even as it remains majority white. And Grand County, where Moab is located, has a Democratic bend to it. More Grand County residents voted for President Joe Biden than former president Donald Trump in 2020.

Smith said she’s made an effort to meet constituents face-to-face in each pocket of the district. To her, that alone has opened the minds of voters.

“I'll go up to someone that is saying he's a full Trump supporter. But we'll have a conversation an hour or maybe two hours later. That person now knows who I am and says, ‘You know, I really do want to support you,’” Smith said.

Lyman has seen his district change during the four years he’s been in office. He said Kanab used to be known for ranchers and miners, but now new residents have moved in and brought “some creative flair” with “different political ideas” that probably lean “more left.”

To Lyon Cotti, these changes are the key factor in this race.

“Depending on what demographics turn out, what party members turn out, who can motivate people, who can be that galvanizing candidate that will likely determine who is the next representative,” Lyon Cotti said.

Aside from political ideology, Lyman and Smith look at the district differently in some ways. While campaigning, Lyman said concerns over tourism have dominated the conversation with constituents.

“They would probably prefer more manufacturing and extraction and cattle than tourism,” Lyman said.

He noted the debate over public lands will remain in the limelight, and that he would like to see the state take more control.

Additionally, Lyman said his goal as a lawmaker has been to address overarching statewide problems, like his recent bill that would require clergy to report abuse or his failed legislation that would alter the state’s mail-in voting system.

‘“Most of my involvement in politics has been to try to bring some attention to issues that are really important to Utah, not just to rural Utah and not just to my district, but to Utah in general,” he said.

On the other hand, Smith said affordable housing, health care, education and public safety were the biggest issues constituents have expressed to her. She said the worries of her district are her top priority if she makes it to Utah’s Capitol Hill.

“I know what it feels like not being included into conversations that are to benefit our communities. As a Utah Navajo, that's the story of our life,” Smith said. “Our local government is also not being heard at the state level. Our decisions are being made for us at a state level.”

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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