During the later part of the nineteenth century, Utah politics was organized on religious lines, where elections were contested between a Mormon People's party and a Gentile Liberal party. However, there were early attempts toward organizing around national political patterns as well. As early as 1884, a Democratic party club was organized, allying a group of Utahns with the national Democratic party. Four years later another organization, known as Sagebrush Democracy, (initially a term of derision given the group by the Salt Lake Tribune), was established marking the first real effort to bring together Utahns in support of the national Democratic party.
State politics was reorganized after the 1890 Manifesto discontinuing polygamy was announced, and both the Republican and Democratic party emerged in the state. Many assumed that the traditional ties of many LDS Church leaders to the Democratic party philosophy would make Utah a strong Democratic state. In 1894, however, Republican Frank J. Cannon was elected Utah's delegate in Congress and the Republicans elected 60 members to the Constitutional Convention, a 13-vote majority over the Democratic. In the first presidential contest held after achieving statehood in 1896, however, Utah Democrats did well, drawing more than eighty percent of the presidential vote for William Jennings Bryan and electing a variety of Democrats to state and local office as well. That same year, William H. King was elected to Congress and the Democratic legislature selected Joseph L. Rawlins to serve as U. S. Senator. Two years later, the Democrats elected B. H. Roberts to Congress although he was denied his seat because of his practice of plural marriage. Roberts was eventually replaced by William H. King in a special election held in April 1900.
Utah Democrats were far less successful after 1900, a period characterized by the rise of Reed Smoot to political power and his political alliance between Mormons and Gentiles that led to a strengthened Republican party. Utah Democrats were also weakened by internal division and by the general support among Utahns for Republican policies that seemed to have brought prosperity to America in the first decade of the 20th century.
In 1914, Utah Democrats allied with the Progressive party to take control of both houses of the Utah legislature as well as many county offices. Two years later, the Democrats scored a major victory garnering the state's electoral votes for Wilson, and electing Simon Bamberger as Governor, William H. King to the U.S. Senate and both representatives in Congress. The state legislature was overwhelmingly Democratic as well.
One of the most active Democrats during that period was James H. Moyle, party candidate for U.S. Senate in 1914, and a member of the Wilson administration. During the 1920s, Utah stayed pretty much in the Republican camp although King was re-elected in 1922 and 1928. Internal divisions within the Utah GOP at the time would prove important. A major upset occurred in 1924, when Democratic legislator George Dern defeated incumbent Republican Governor Charles Mabey using the slogan "We want a Dern Good Governor and We Don't Mean Mabey."
In the early 1930s, Utah Democrats, like their counterparts across the nation, emerged greatly strengthened by the candidacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Utah Governor Dern was selected by FDR to serve as Secretary of War in the first Roosevelt cabinet. In 1932, Elbert D. Thomas, a professor at the University of Utah, defeated Reed Smoot in a bitter contest and served in the Senate until he was defeated in a similarly bitter race in 1950. Moreover, a resurgent Democratic party paved the way for the emergence of the leading Utah Democrat of his generation -- Herbert B. Maw. Elected first to the state senate in 1928, Maw, an attorney and University of Utah professor, became the leader of the liberal, pro-FDR, wing of the party. In 1937, he was President of the Utah State Senate during one of the most liberal sessions in its history. This legislature passed bills dealing with relief and assistance and unemployment and enacted an open primary law that would strongly affect Democratic candidates. For the next decade, liberal forces dominated Utah's Democratic party, most notable Senator King, continued to hold office.
In 1940, Maw was elected governor and was reelected four years later. In 1948, he ran for an unprecedented third term. As the result of scandals within his administration, and a weakened campaign organization, Maw was defeated by Utah political maverick J. Bracken Lee. That same year, however, Reva Beck Bosone, a former judge and legislator in both Salt Lake and Carbon counties, was elected to the House of Representatives becoming the first female member of congress from Utah. Maw's defeat in 1948, and the defeat of Elbert D. Thomas two years later, ushered in another period of Republican dominance in the Beehive State.
In 1958, Salt Lake County Attorney Frank E. "Ted" Moss was elected U.S. Senator in a three-way race when J. Bracken Lee entered as an independent. Moss was a prominent national Democrat during the 1960s and 1970s until his defeat by political newcomer Orrin Hatch in 1976. In 1964, Calvin Rampton, who had been unsuccessful in numerous political contests was elected Governor over non-Mormon Mitch Melich. Rampton - who championed industrial development, tourism and defense-related spending as Governor- dominated Utah politics during the 1960s and 70s and was the only person ever elected governor three times.
Democrats dominated both houses of the legislature after the Johnson landslide of 1964. Two years later, however, the party suffered a major defeat in state and local races throughout Utah. In 1976, a political unknown, attorney Scott Matheson, was elected running as a "citizen candidate" and would eventually serve two terms as Utah chief executive. Two particularly important Utah Democrats during this period were Wayne Owens, who represented Utah's second congressional district in 1972, and returned in 1986, and Gunn McKay, Utah congressman from the first district from 1970 to 1980. Other prominent Democrats of recent times include Ted Wilson, Francis Farley, Palmer DePaulis. Utahn Jean Westwood was named chair of the Democratic National Committee by party nominee George McGovern in 1972.
Despite the popularity of Governor Rampton, and the emergence of new figures in the party, Utah Democrats suffered during the 1970s and 1980s because of splits over such issues as the Equal Rights Amendment and the stands taken by the national Democratic party which seemed far too liberal for many Utah Democrats. Additionally, the national Democratic party, in the face of strong Republican activity, had largely written off Utah as a potential area of support for presidential campaigns. Neither Jimmy Carter nor Walter Mondale did well in the elections of the 1970s and 80s, and Ronald Reagan was enormously popular in the Beehive State. In 1988, Democrat Michael Dukasis ran far behind Republican George Bush. At the same time, defeats for Governor in 1984 and 1988, and for the U.S. Senate in 1980, 1982 and 1986 seemed to suggest that the party was facing hard times for the foreseeable future. In 1990, however, Utah Democrats re-elected Wayne Owens in the second district, and surprised most local commentators by electing Bill Orton to an open seat in congress from the strongly Republican Third Congressional District, while running a strong race in the First Congressional District. Although still in a distinct minority in state offices, and still exhibiting the division between its conservative and liberal wings, by the early 1990s, Utah Democrats seemed stronger and more politically viable than they had for nearly two decades.