Lessons learned from Mendenhall’s surprise win in Salt Lake primary

We explore the results of the Salt Lake City mayoral primary election and why it demonstrates interesting dynamics in Utah politics.

By Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb, Contributors Aug 18, 2019

Well, no one predicted this outcome. We explore the results of the Salt Lake City mayoral primary election and why it demonstrates interesting dynamics in Utah politics.

With more than 37,000 ballots counted, Salt Lake City Council member Erin Mendenhallcaptured the top spot in the primary. State Sen. Luz Escamilla bumped presumed favorite James Dabakis out of the final election. What are politicos saying?

Pignanelli: “Money doesn’t win elections. Votes do.” — Dan Backer

Councilwoman Mendenhall deserves “Teacher of the Decade” for her campaign that brilliantly reminded politicos of unwavering rules and explained new trends.

Tuesday night reaffirmed to the political community that municipal primaries cannot be purchased through campaign contributions. Success in the Salt Lake City primary is dependent upon grassroots, shoe-leather campaigns, along with smart messaging. Mendenhall was outspent by most of her opponents and still prevailed.

Dabakis developed an impressive network of progressive supporters and was viewed as invincible. But Mendenhall and Escamilla ignored the perception and the conventional wisdom of his strength. Both campaigns took nothing for granted, to their benefit. Mendenhall and Escamilla adhered to progressive principles but exhibited stability. Thus, this is another lesson to progressives that they can make a difference in Utah politics — if an acceptable persona is developed.

With just the basics, Mendenhall (and Escamilla) taught us Utah politics is still adhering to a rational course. She deserves an apple.

Webb: Nothing replaces hard work and grassroots organizing in a low-turnout, mid-summer primary election. Mendenhall got her voters to vote. That takes skill and managerial prowess, and it bodes well for Mendenhall in November’s final election.

The primary got a little chippy at the end, with some charges flying around, but for the most part it was a clean race focused on issues. That was, no doubt, partly because most candidates were smart enough to know that if they made it through the primary they would need the support of losing candidates and their supporters to win the final election. One thing to watch will be how many endorsements Mendenhall and Escamilla pick up from the losing candidates.

The conventional wisdom had the flamboyant Dabakis winning. While he has many solid supporters, he also has many detractors. He was the most polarizing candidate in the field.

Mendenhall is now the frontrunner, but Escamilla will be a tough competitor in the final election.

In the final weeks of the primary, some candidates were openly criticizing others for having received the support of Republicans and developers. Did this have an impact?

Pignanelli: Some politicos conjectured this tactic guaranteed a bump to progressive candidates who had no relationship with Republicans. But the exact opposite may have happened. Because right-of-center residents did not have a horse in the race, learning that certain Republicans (e.g. Mendenhall, Escamilla) were liked by some GOP officials may have attracted them to vote for their candidacies.

Mendenhall and Escamilla, by not running from these silly accusations, connected with residents who want their officials to reach across the aisle for solutions. They understand the importance to have officials who can build pragmatic relationships with others. It’s nice to know that some Salt Lake City residents are pushing against the nasty partisan trap of Washington, D.C., politics.

Webb: I haven’t quite sunk to the low of being a Dastardly Developer, but I certainly am a Reprehensible Republican. Good thing I didn’t endorse anyone or I would have single-handedly doomed the candidate.

That talking point was rather silly and it had no impact. Only among some ultra-liberal city partisans would attracting a bit of Republican support be considered bad.

The reality is the next mayor will need good relationships with the Republican governor and the Republican Legislature — and even with those Dastardly Developers.

Mendenhall ought to stop criticizing Escamilla for her legislative service. If Mendenhall becomes mayor, she’s going to need plenty of legislative help.

The primary election turnout was low, even with mail-in ballots. Can anything be done to get more people to vote?

Pignanelli: For decades, studies have consistently documented that voters are more willing to participate if a campaign has contacted them personally on several occasions. Television, radio and social media bombardment does not motivate 21st century participation in elections. Candidates and operatives must be consistently reminded of this.

Further, there needs to be a greater emphasis in our culture on the fact that municipal elections have a greater impact on the day-to-day lives of residents than any other political activity.

Webb: Summertime, and the livin’ is easy — and folks ain’t thinkin’ about politics. I don’t worry too much about low turnout because informed, engaged people voted, and the uninformed didn’t. I’d rather have knowledgeable people choosing our leaders than someone making a wild guess at the ballot box or voting for a candidate with the same name as her cat.