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Midterm Mayhem

PLUS: Prop 2 madness, awful political ads, an ode to Orrin and more!

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Jenny Wilson - KELAN LYONS
  • Kelan Lyons
  • Jenny Wilson

Jenny's Last Stand
Inside Jenny Wilson's uphill battle against Mitt Romney for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
By Kelan Lyons

It's a hazy Saturday morning in September, but Jenny Wilson is spending it outside, breathing in the noxious gases and smoke as she canvasses a neighborhood in Riverton. A half-hour earlier, she'd told a handful of volunteers gathered in her Salt Lake City HQ that she and the team can't afford to take any days off, even when the air quality sucks. A statewide campaign requires discipline and sacrifice, especially when you're the Democrat running against Mitt Romney.

Canvassing involves meandering around neighborhoods to confer with voters who might be persuaded to vote for Wilson. It's a common staple of political campaigning, but Wilson doesn't just farm out the grunt work to volunteers or professionals. She's there on the front lines, walking up to strangers to tell them why she wants to be their senator. "They're absolutely happy to talk to me," she says of potential voters as she approaches someone's home. "They don't expect a candidate for the U.S. Senate to be out knocking on doors."

Christopher Smith answers Wilson's tapping and steps onto his patio to chat. She tells him who she is and what office she's pursuing. "That's a tough race," Smith says before explaining his family's political breakdown. "We have a split household," he says, meaning he's the lone Republican who lives there.

Political differences aside, Smith and Wilson talk for 20 minutes. They bond over the sports their children play, then get deep into the weeds on health care and Social Security. The amiable conversation reaches a natural conclusion after they gab about that afternoon's BYU football game, and Wilson asks if she's earned his vote. "I'll definitely consider it," Smith says. "I wish I'd get the chance for a one-on-one with Romney, as well."

In 2004, Wilson became the first woman elected to the Salt Lake County Council, where she's currently serving her second term. If she beats Romney, she'll be the first woman elected in Utah to serve on the U.S. Senate. "I'm not running on the platform of becoming the first woman senator from the state of Utah, but that would be a first, and maybe at some level would encourage young women to live their dreams, no matter what they may be," she says.

Politics is in Wilson's blood. Her father, Ted, unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat against Orrin Hatch for his U.S. Senate seat in 1982. He was also a well-liked Salt Lake City mayor for almost a decade, from 1976 to 1985. "My dad is the ultimate consensus-builder," Wilson says. People from all different political affiliations are constantly telling her what a good man he is. Watching him work when she was young gave Wilson a framework for her own political career, teaching her the importance of collaborating with members of other political parties in order to achieve real, lasting change.

"I think we see good government when both sides of the aisle engage and come up with solutions, especially in this day and age when we're so divided," Wilson says.

In the '90s, Wilson was the chief of staff for Bill Orton, a Democrat U.S. congressman who represented Utah's 3rd District, one of the most conservative in the state. Working with Orton added to the wisdom she gained from observing her father's career, helping her learn how to compromise and reach across party lines. It also instilled a deep understanding of the value of balanced representation in government, a message she's spreading in her campaign.

"I look around, I look at the dominant gender, the dominant religion, the dominant party, and I think we should make change," Wilson says. "I think I represent something very different. Clearly, returning a Democrat to a statewide-elected position in Utah I think would go a long way to support the families in this state."

The problem is, the change Wilson envisions is a longshot. A recent Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll lists Romney as having a commanding 36-point lead.

"Mitt Romney is a juggernaut," Hinckley Institute of Politics associate director Morgan Lyon Cotti says. "He has universal name recognition. He knows how to run a campaign."

But it's also a matter of the "R" next to his name. Utah, after all, is a Republican stronghold. According to its election website, Democrats make up about 12 percent of active voters in the state. Republicans make up 48 percent.

"Partisanship is a big driver in a race like this," Matthew Burbank, an associate professor in the U's Department of Political Science, says. He thinks Romney and Wilson share a lot of similarities, despite belonging to different parties. Both candidates have campaigned on their abilities to cut through partisan bickering to reach a bipartisan consensus, and they have similar takes on governing. "They both have a sense that politics is about, broadly speaking, trying to help people," Burbank says.

But there are key differences in each candidate's positions. To name a few: Romney backs enhanced background checks for guns and a ban on bump stocks but, ultimately, believes gun legislation should be passed at the state level, whereas Wilson supports a ban on assault-style weapons and enhanced background checks for purchases made online or at a gun show; Romney thinks states should have the right to approve national monument designations, Wilson is against shrinking monument borders; Romney is a fan of tax reform, Wilson calls it "a giveaway to the very wealthy and corporations."

Like an old red sweater, Romney's political preferences are comfortable for Utah voters. His politics align with "common sense conservative policies and values that a lot of Utahns are familiar with and a lot of Utahns like," Cotti says. "He's an easy vote for a lot of Utah Republicans."

Uphill battle aside, Wilson and her team have put up a good fight. She's traveled to all of Utah's 29 counties over the past 20 months, talking to voters about her diplomatic skills in working with Republicans to get things done. "Jenny has run a really great statewide campaign. Democrats do better when they hit the streets," Cotti says.

A fifth-generation Utahn who's now raising a family of her own, Wilson is used to packing up her car and heading to a national park or campground. "And when you do that, you gas up, you get your Diet Coke, you fill the cooler and you move on. When you go out as a candidate, you engage with people," she says. "It doesn't take long for the tears to well up."

No tears are visible as she canvasses in Riverton. That day, Wilson winds up knocking on more than 10 doors and speaks with pretty much everyone who happens to be outside while she walks around the community. At one point, she comes across an elderly man wrangling with ghastly decorations as he strategically places skeletons and ghouls on his lawn. "The neighborhood kids demand it," the man says when Wilson asks him why he's setting up for Halloween in mid-September. "You're that Wilson lady," he says before she can introduce herself. "You're gonna make me a Democrat."

Wilson thanks him for his time, recognizing that he's solidly in Romney's camp. "We can't get every vote, but we'll try," she says.

As the day winds down, Wilson comes across two LDS missionaries. She runs through her usual elevator pitch and introduces herself. The two young men don't look like they recognize her.

"My opponent is Mitt Romney, have you heard of him?" Wilson asks. "I think so," one of them says, smiling.

In some ways, talking to Wilson is like talking to a charismatic college professor. One minute she's talking about holiday decorations or making a joke, the next she's explaining the intersection between the criminal justice system, health care and the opioid epidemic. As a candidate, she's traveled the whole state, and as a member of the Utah Association of Counties, she has a firm understanding of many issues facing Utahns in rural and urban communities.

But in Republican Utah, that only goes so far. Wilson still is getting clobbered in the polls. At age 71, it's unclear whether Romney would be able to serve more than two six-year terms. And maybe that's not such a bad thing. "I think for a lot of Republicans in this state, they're perfectly happy Mitt Romney is not going to be there for as long as Orrin Hatch was," Burbank says.

Wilson, who will be 53 years old come Election Day, isn't sure she would run for Senate again if she loses on Nov. 6. Campaigning statewide is grueling. But she vows to participate, in one way or another, in every federal election, even if she isn't the Democrat who's on the ballot. The limelight isn't what's important—it's fielding a new generation of leaders who will fight for values that Utah Democrats share and give a voice to on the other side of the aisle. "I do this because I want this state to remain as special as it is, and I think there are things worth fighting for," Wilson says.

Driving back to Salt Lake City from Riverton, Wilson opines about the future of Utah's politics. Win or lose, she's optimistic. "Change in this state is tangible. You can feel it in this murky air."