What kind of upheaval would it take to put a progressive, transgender woman from Utah in the U.S. Senate?
Maybe Donald J. Trump.
Misty K. Snow thinks so. She’s making a bid to unseat Mike Lee, the state’s junior GOP senator. Though she faces long odds, she believes a storm is gathering that will shatter the status quo.
“If there was ever a chance for Democrats to win Utah, it’s this year,” says Snow. “And I believe we’ll surprise some people.”
Snow, 31, grew up Mormon. She no longer practices the religion, but there are traces of that history in her campaign. She’s making a progressive vision of family values her theme, and her main priorities are clean air, a $15 an hour minimum wage and paid maternity leave. It’s an agenda that draws on her life experience, and she believes it can appeal to a broad base of voters in Utah.
“A lot of disaffected working-class people see me as the true representative of the working class, whether or not they agree with me on some of the other, more progressive themes,” says Snow, who works as a grocery store cashier.
She became politically involved in 2008, when she began paying attention to (and voted for) Ralph Nader in the presidential election. She was inspired to run this year by the Bernie Sanders campaign and by her dismay at the self-described “conservative Democrat” who was the early favorite to oppose Lee. She beat him in the June primary by nearly 20 points.
Snow’s focus on paid maternity is particularly relevant in Utah, which has the nation’s highest birth rate. And though Utah is solidly Republican, air quality is important to voters there. In a survey of more than 50,000 Utahans last year, respondents ranked clean air near the top of their priorities.
That finding reflects an environmentalist streak in the state. Its last Democratic senator, Frank Moss, who served from 1959 to 1977, built his Senate career in part by being ahead of the curve on water conservation. In The Water Crisis (1967), Moss wrote that “the real reason for our water crisis is our failure to husband our resources.” Moss also distinguished himself by working to improve health care for the poor and elderly.
Beyond Snow’s focus on Utah-centric issues, though, it’s the havoc created by Trump’s candidacy that could clear a path for her to win in November.
Trump’s dubious conservative credentials, religious bigotry and general outlandishness have turned off many of the Republican voters in Utah, where he won just 14 percent of the vote in the state’s caucus. Ted Cruz won 69 percent. A June poll put Hillary Clinton and Trump in a statistical tie in the state. Trump is still the favorite, but the lack of enthusiasm for him will probably diminish turnout among Republicans.
At the same time, Lee, who is a close ally of Cruz in the Senate, has alienated many of the GOP voters most likely to turn out in November — people excited about Trump — by aligning with the Never Trump movement.
And Lee was already unpopular because of his support for the government shutdown that Cruz led in 2013. The federal government is among Utah’s largest employers, in part because of the popular national parks there, and the shutdown hurt both federal employees and the tourist industry supported by the parks.
“A lot of our rural areas really depend on that tourism, so that was really devastating to those communities,” Snow says. “So there’s a lot of anger toward Lee for that, even three years later.”
A poll taken in June found that Lee would beat Snow by about 14 points. Only 45 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of him; 37 percent had an unfavorable opinion, and 18 percent were neutral.
But Snow has a powerful advantage — beyond Trump — that might prove decisive: Young voters. As with the nation broadly, millennials in Utah are much more progressive than older generations. In a survey taken last year, 62 percent self-identified as either “liberal” or “moderate.” Only 39 percent of people born before 1945, and 50 percent of Baby Boomers, self-identified that way.
The base for Lee’s rigidly right-wing politics, in other words, consists of older people, and Utah is easily the youngest state in the Union. It has a median age of 30, versus the national average of nearly 37, and it ranks second in the percentage of its population who are millennials. The strong youth vote was the key reason Sanders beat Clinton by a margin of nearly 60 points in the state.
What does all of this add up to? Will Utah, of all places, elect the Senate’s first transgender member?
It seems unlikely: According to the most recent filings, Lee’s campaign had more than $1 million in its war chest, versus about $6,000 in Snow’s. But in an election season in which Trump poses as the voice of the forgotten and dispossessed, stranger things have already happened.
“I think Lee’s strategy right now is to ignore me, because he thinks he’s a sure lock for re-election,” Snow says. “But working-class people know our wages are too low. They know we have huge air-quality issues. I talk about making this an economy that actually works for working people. I understand what it means to live paycheck to paycheck, and I’m going to fight to make life better for working class families. That’s the message I’m getting out there.”