This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Two days before Election Day in 1990, the Utah County Journal , a free newspaper delivered to every household from Lehi to Payson, ran a large ad paid for by the Republican Party. Republican congressional candidate Karl Snow was pictured with his large family above the caption "Karl Snow and his family." On the other side was a picture of Snow's unmarried opponent, Bill Orton. The caption read "Bill Orton and his family."
A larger caption read: "Some candidates want you to believe that their personal values don't matter...Families do matter! Vote Republican."
Snow apologized for the ad, but Orton won by a wide margin, reminding us that Utahns prefer positive campaigns.
Orton's death on April 18 brings back fond memories of his service. But his career is also a tale of improbable achievements and demographic change. The Journal ad became political legend, but it obscures the fact that Orton won 12 of 13 counties in the district--most of them rural counties where livelihoods revolve around livestock and mining.
In fact, when Orton was defeated in 1996, following the surprise announcement of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, he still carried seven rural counties. With the exception of Carbon, none of those counties were Democratic strongholds. These results indicate that events like the Journal ad and the Grand Staircase announcement were not the only factors behind Orton's initial victory and eventual defeat.
We also forget that 1990 was a bad year for Republicans generally. The 1990 election of J. Dell Holbrook -- a Democrat -- to the Davis County Commission is as noteworthy as Orton's win considering that Davis and Utah Counties are virtually political twins. And the Republican Party in the 3rd District was all the more fractured following an unusually testy primary between Karl Snow and John Harmer.
After controlling for the super-turnout of presidential elections, election results from the 1990s show that local Utah Valley races tilted increasingly toward Republicans over those years even though Orton's own vote totals generally increased.
Utah County sent several Democrats to the Legislature during the '80s and '90s, including State Sen. Eldon Money. Money, a Spanish Fork farmer, was loved by his constituents and even ran unopposed at times. Such a scenario is unthinkable now and Money finally lost in a close race the same year as Orton. During these years the population of Utah Valley grew rapidly with new Republicans vastly outnumbering new Democrats. Similar demographic trends continued following Orton's defeat.
Orton's wins were also made possible by thousands of senior citizens who grew up in an era when Democrats were competitive. My experience going door to door for candidates is that older conservatives tend to split their votes for Democrats more often than young conservatives. Understanding this counterintuitive fact helps paint a more accurate demographic picture of the 3rd District in the early '90s -- an area that is now younger and larger in population.
But the real story behind Orton's success lies in his personal gifts, qualities that moved voters to re-elect him twice during a period when Bill Clinton -- the leader of the Democratic Party -- was extremely unpopular in Utah. Orton was never polarizing and always listened. People loved him.
I believe voters still want to look beyond party affiliation, and recent trends are hopeful. Unfortunately, many of us have a hard time venturing beyond the safety of right-wing radio or left-wing blogs. Allowing others to stroke our pre-existing notions is easier than considering new faces and ideas.
The reasons for Orton's success are varied, but in running he showed that he believed in each voter's ability to look beyond party lines and give somebody else a chance. We would do well to elect more public servants like Bill Orton.
Doug Holm is a past member of the Democratic State Central Committee and has worked on several Democratic campaigns, including Donald Dunn's 2000 campaign for Congress in the 3rd District.