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Democrats have grim chance in District 53

Local Democrats were eagerly awaiting the returns on Election Day in District 53 of the Utah House of Representatives.

The party had rallied around its candidate, Kathy Lofft, an attorney and activist who Democratic leaders trumpeted as a politician who could, after years of Republican control, wrestle the coveted seat from the GOP.

The Democrats in Summit County were energized heading into Election Day, with Barack Obama leading the ticket and the local party filling the ballot with what they hoped was a winning slate of County Council candidates. Turnout by party faithful was expected to be impressive.

The Democrats, nationally, had one of their best Election Days, and the party captured four out of the five seats on the County Council.

Her Republican opponent, however, incumbent legislator Mel Brown, dismissed Lofft by nine percentage points.

Brown’s win was not a blowout, and Lofft made gains compared to Brown’s victory over Democrat Laura Bonham in 2006. Lofft’s loss on a day when the Democrats performed so well, though, leaves some wondering under what circumstances a Democrat can win in District 53.

"It’s disappointing, but this is what to expect when there’s one-party rule in the Legislature," says Laura Bonham, the chairwoman of the Summit County Democratic Party and a three-time defeated candidate in District 53, twice as a Democrat and once as a Green Party candidate.

Legislators early in the decade carved District 53 out of an expansive swath of rural Utah, stretching from Park City and the East Side of Summit County through parts of several outlying counties.

Critics still are disgusted with the district’s borders, claiming that the Republican-dominated Legislature gerrymandered District 53 to ensure it is kept under GOP control. The Democratic candidate typically wins in the Park City area, but the voters elsewhere swamp the polls and put the Republican into office. The Snyderville Basin was put into a district with neighborhoods on the eastern side of Salt Lake City.

The Legislature after the 2010 census will redraw the district lines based on population gains and losses.

"I think they are trying to keep the Democratic Party from being able to win seats in Utah," Bonham says.

She says it has been especially difficult for the Democrats to attract voters in Morgan County, one of the outlying counties with territory in District 53. She says the western edge of Morgan County is growing, and she sees that area as a place where Democrats may advance. She says her party "eventually will pick up that seat" and she wants the state Democratic Party to be heavily involved in the 2010 District 53 campaign.

"I think if Kathy Lofft runs again that’s a possibility," Bonham says, calling Lofft’s performance "exceptionally well for a first-time candidate."

Brown acknowledges a Democrat could win the District 53 seat, but he says the rural voters in the other counties would make it difficult. He says there are diverse interests in the district, but many adhere to Republican ideals.

Brown also says the 2010 election will be the last with the current District 53 borders since they are expected to be redrawn before the 2012 campaign.

Summit County Council-elect David Ure, a Republican who once held the District 53 seat, also envisions difficulties for the Democrats as they compete for the position. He says Republicans are well-positioned in the district and, against the energized Democrats in 2008, the GOP held firm in state-level campaigns.

"Utah is still Utah," Ure says.

The numbers

District-wide vote:

Brown

8,405 votes, 54.5 percent

Lofft

7,012 votes, 45.5 percent

Summit County vote:

Lofft

5,573 votes, 53.9 percent

Brown

4,770 votes, 46.1 percent


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